Applications opened in January for Penn College’s new Master of Science in Nursing, nursing education, with classes set to begin in Fall 2021. Created for the working nurse, the degree is designed to be completed on a part-time basis within two years. All classes are conducted online.
Having weathered many challenges herself, Geisinger Life Flight’s Stephanie Suzadail, ’14, loves to provide calm in the center of the storm.
A flight nurse's calling
Determination lifts grad above storms
by Jennifer A. Cline, writer/magazine editor
Published March 23, 2021
Stephanie Suzadail loves providing calm in the center of a storm.
“I’m a bit of a tornado myself, so the idea of chaos excites me,” says Suzadail, a flight registered nurse for Geisinger Life Flight who, with a flight medic, cares for patients in critical situations in the confines of a helicopter. “I love chaos. I work best under pressure, and there’s a lot in emergency and trauma.”
The crew’s work requires proficient and level-headed response.
“Emergency nursing is a lot of calm in crisis and prioritization in the face of chaos,” Suzadail says.
A 2014 Pennsylvania College of Technology graduate with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, Suzadail began her career in health care as a volunteer emergency medical technician while still in high school. But the inspiration began well before that.
Her dad, she says, was like a human Humpty Dumpty. “If it could be fallen through, under, on, beside, around,” she jokes, “that was him.”
“I got used to being there and helping take care of him,” she says. “My mom then also got really sick with an immunity disorder that wiped out her ability to create antibodies. As a result, she saw many intensive care visits over simple illnesses you and I could easily fight off. Medicine was something I was exposed to a lot as a kid.”
Unfortunately, she’s been exposed to trauma, as well.
In high school, she survived abuse from a boyfriend. But as a result, she was motivated to empower others, earning a master’s degree in forensic nursing.
“I wanted to make their voices heard and give them justice I didn’t feel like I had,” she explains. “I have no regrets in my own life but recognize I wouldn’t want others to feel what I felt. I wanted to advocate for men, women and children and advance the current state of the legal system.”
As she graduated from high school, she applied to nursing schools and was accepted by a private university in a large city. But her heart wasn’t in it – yet. She changed her major to pre-medicine, but was overwhelmed by the big city, big class sizes, and the big ambitions of an overloaded course schedule. She became depressed and failed most of her classes.
Then she transferred to Penn College.
Instead of a residence hall, she moved into living quarters at the Loyalsock Volunteer Fire Co. as part of a “live-in” agreement that several local volunteer fire companies have initiated to provide free room and board for EMT-certified college students who agree to answer ambulance calls overnight.
Suzadail initially enrolled in the college’s paramedic program before she decided to switch to nursing, the major she had initially explored.
This time, she was all in.
“After the defeat of my first year of college, I buckled down,” she said.
She also began to find a support system, including her now-husband, Chris, a fellow firefighter, 2005 Penn College graduate and information technology faculty member currently on special assignment to help the college implement a new enterprise resource planning system. He supported her education when her mother no longer could.
Each semester, her confidence and her grades improved as she found her niche.
And then came more trauma when, driving home the night before an anatomy exam, her car left the roadway and rolled six or seven times before coming to rest on its roof.
The accident caused a brain injury and a minor skull fracture. Suzadail cannot remember the moments that led up to the crash – nor several days before it.
She continued her nursing education, but “for all intents and purposes, I never should have passed,” she says.
As she recovered from the head injury, she managed neurological issues. She spent long nights studying while doctors changed medications, some of which caused her to doze off or made it difficult to focus.
But as she communicated her concerns, the college’s faculty provided support.
“They worked with me. I wasn’t given anything I didn’t earn, but they worked with me so I didn’t have to drop out of school,” Suzadail says. “That means something. My faculty saw potential. They weren’t easy on me, but they were supportive. Semesters got better as my doctors figured things out.
“I never would’ve gotten to graduation, my first job, my master’s degree with an almost 4.0 GPA, and then my dream job without the faculty who pushed me past my limits, who stayed there in my life as a support system when I wanted to give up. PCT nursing faculty are not just paid to teach; they get invested in your success when sometimes you can’t see it in yourself.”
She might not have seen it, but they did.
“She was extremely driven to attain the goal of becoming a nurse and worked very hard to attain this,” recalls Karen L. Martin, associate professor of medical-surgical nursing.
But the effects of her brain injury were not behind her. While a student, Suzadail worked as a patient care assistant at Williamsport Hospital. In May 2013, as she got ready for work, she noticed her left hand and arm were numb.
She wrote about the scary experience in her blog, Scrubs N’ Sirens.
“I figured I slept weird on it and ignored it – I was running late,” she wrote.
But when she arrived at work 15 minutes later, the numbness and tingling had spread throughout her left side.
She turned to a colleague to ask whether she’d ever experienced anything like it, but the colleague looked confused. Suzadail’s words were garbled. As she tried to speak, she felt the left side of her face begin to slide and go numb. She tried to lift her left hand to touch her cheek but couldn’t move it.
“It all went black as I hit the floor,” she wrote.
When she opened her eyes, she was in the hospital’s emergency room. A chaplain was speaking to her, and a “stroke cart” was being wheeled into the room.
She answered questions, agreeing to receive a clot-dissolving drug and to be flown by helicopter to another hospital: Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, near her hometown. During a three-day stay in the medical center’s neuro ICU, doctors determined that although she had shown the symptoms of a stroke, the cause was a rare type of headache called a hemiplegic migraine.
She recovered and spent the summer between her junior and senior years completing a 10-week nursing externship in the Emergency Trauma/General Surgery unit at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
“It took me six years to graduate,” she says. “I’m sort of proof that anything is possible. I went from a cruddy GPA to a 4.0 in my last semester despite my brain injury because I worked hard and had the right guidance. I think anywhere else, I would have fallen by the wayside. So I love PCT.”
“She sets the bar high and is a wonderful role model for our nursing students,” says one of those guides, Dottie M. Mathers, professor of medical-surgical nursing and Suzadail’s academic adviser. “As a student herself, she was always very polite and professional. She was enthusiastic about her learning and actively sought clarification as needed. She was a high achiever and earned top grades in my class. She was a role model to other students during her time at Penn College – being eager to help others learn but refusing to participate in any immature or unprofessional behavior.”
After graduating, Suzadail worked in an intensive care unit and then an emergency room.
In the UPMC Williamsport ER, she received a DAISY Award for Extraordinary Nurses and found fulfillment in knowing that she was helping people on their worst days.
“It was not just the clinical and technical proficiency, but the art of nursing: the small squeeze of the hand and a smile to let them know you were there and they weren’t alone,” she says. “It was your mental health patients who felt their worlds crumbling around them and giving them empowerment back with something as small as a shower and a warm meal – small acts of kindness.”
In the course of her work as an emergency department RN, and her continued volunteer work as an EMT, she frequently encountered flight nurses and flight medics and admired their work. She read every book on the subject and dreamed of working in a helicopter.
She continued to advance her education, obtaining her master’s degree, the trauma certified registered nurse credential, sexual assault nurse examiner training and other credentials. (In Fall 2020, she began pursuing a second master’s degree in emerging media with a concentration in health communication.)
“Every certification I completed was with the end goal to fly,” she says.
Nearly two and a half years ago, she met that goal as she joined the Geisinger Life Flight staff, flying out of a base at the Williamsport Regional Airport in Montoursville along with several Penn College paramedic program alumni.
The weight of the work before her was heavy: “People associate the flight suit with competence, confidence and skills. Then I became the person in the flight suit.”
One of the challenges is continual change: Patients change from moment to moment, illnesses evolve, and the field of medicine continues to advance, requiring her to learn about new diagnoses and treatments.
“I have to constantly know more, and I continually get served humble pie, but it’s a cool job, because you get to operate at the top of your nursing license. I couldn’t imagine anything else. The combination of adrenaline and brains is music.”
The crew lands in tragic scenes. Often, she looks at patients who, intubated and unresponsive, do not look like the photo she sees on their driver’s license. She strives to return them to that state.
Although they don’t look like themselves, “you’re looking at someone’s someone,” she says.
“The hard, defeating part of this job is that you’re going to save a lot of lives, but some you are not,” she adds. “Me, as an over-empathetic person, having been flown in a helicopter, having lost people, for me it was learning how to deal with these losses.”
Emergency responders must learn to take care of themselves and know when to take a break, she says.
After difficult losses, the wins keep her going.
“The most rewarding experience has been when one of my most injured patients of my career, who was in a vehicle crash with a terribly lacerated liver requiring over 140 different blood products, multiple surgeries, months of intensive care, ventilator use, heart and lung bypass, and renal replacement therapy, was able to be discharged, and his brother sent me pictures of him and his children at his sister’s wedding.
“I remember having to intubate him, start multiple blood products and complex medication drips to stabilize his hemodynamics in the middle of a dark helicopter. I visited him three times in the hospital, and every time, seeing him get a little better each time, made me realize this was where I wanted to be. Not every patient survives, but patients like him strengthen your resolve.”
Suzadail is a picture of resilience and resolve.
“Not everyone has been as misfortunate to go through as many things as I have, but not everyone has been as fortunate as me,” she says, grateful for a support system that includes her parents, husband, colleagues and Penn College faculty.
She recently accepted a part-time second job as a flight nurse with Penn State Health’s Life Lion, where she flies on the same helicopter that transported her from Williamsport to Hershey when she was displaying the signs of a stroke.
“I feel like every experience up to now has put me in the right place,” she says. “I would have changed a few things, but nothing has let me down.”
She hopes to use the lessons from the storms she’s weathered to help not only her patients, but future nurses – and others – who find themselves facing obstacles in the pursuit of their dreams.
“Bad things can happen to the best people,” she says. “However, it’s important to realize that those bad things never have to define who you are or destroy your dreams.
“It’s OK to put your goals on a brief pause, but pick them back up and keep working on them. Anything we want in life, we can make happen if we dig our heels in, refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer and instead reframe our thinking as ‘not right now.’ So there’s no shame in stepping back, taking a breath, getting your finances, mental health, physical health and family situations in better places in order to dedicate yourself completely to your goal. Timelines are self-imposed – I took six years to get my BSN, and I like to think I’m a decent nurse anyway.”
Her faculty agree: “She was, and is, genuinely a delightful person and an excellent nurse,” Mathers says.