A visit to a rural hospital changed this VCU grad’s career

Years ago, Harold Barnwell watched a nurse anesthetist’s kindness brighten experiences for patients. Now Barnwell is improving education for his students by making more time for human connections.

Harold Barnwell, D.N.A.P., is interested in improving education for millennial students. (Photo b...
Harold Barnwell, D.N.A.P., is interested in improving education for millennial students. (Photo by Jud Froelich, Development and Alumni Relations)

The first time Harold Barnwell, D.N.A.P., encountered a nurse anesthetist, it changed the course of his life. He had planned to become an attorney, but while exploring career options during the summer after his freshman year at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, Barnwell visited a rural hospital near his family’s home in Georgia.

Nurse anesthetists, nurses with critical-care experience who also are licensed to provide anesthesia, often work in teams with physician anesthesiologists. However, at that rural hospital, the nurse anesthetist was the only anesthesia provider. Barnwell watched in awe and fascination.

“He was knowledgeable and compassionate and that was combined with his ability to communicate with everyone in the room and direct what was going on,” Barnwell said. “He had an understanding of the drugs he was giving, and there was also a technology component. … I thought, this is everything in one job.”

In particular, Barnwell admired the way the nurse anesthetist worked with people. “You could see [patients] being nervous and anxious when they walked in, like I would be for surgery,” Barnwell said. “And then you could see them smile and laugh as they’d go back to the operating room. In five minutes, he completely changed the feel of this room.”

Barnwell began working nights in the hospital’s emergency room as a patient care tech for the summer, partly to get more opportunities to work with the nurse anesthetist. When the fall semester started, Barnwell changed his major from communications to nursing. He went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Nurse Anesthesia in the College of Health Professions.

Today, Barnwell works as an assistant professor and assistant director of doctoral education in VCU’s Department of Nurse Anesthesia and is a practicing anesthetist at VCU Health. He has become a person people describe as knowledgeable and compassionate, well-versed in the technology he uses, and able to positively affect the people around him.

“He is a really good person, very passionate about all of his research work and very cooperative as a collaborator,” said Jiale “Gary” Hu, a Ph.D. student at the University of Ottawa and adjunct faculty member in VCU’s Department of Nurse Anesthesia. Hu has been friends with Barnwell since they met at VCU in 2013 while Hu was a visiting international scholar.

The first time Harold Barnwell, D.N.A.P., CRNA (M.S.N.A.’14/HP; D.N.A.P.’15/HP), encountered a nurse anesthetist, it changed the course of his life. He’d planned to become an attorney, but while exploring career options during the summer after his freshman year at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, Barnwell visited a rural hospital near his family’s home in Georgia.

Barnwell is particularly interested in improving education for millennial students. He believes that technological advances allow for more engaging educational techniques than are possible with traditional textbooks and lectures. Barnwell, who considers himself a millennial, thought it was important to bring educational content to tablets and mobile devices and began to create short videos, inspired by the Khan Academy, a free educational website.

“I’m looking out there saying, ‘What’s working? What are people engaging with?’” he said. “There are millions of people watching videos online. Can we tap into that?”

By breaking lecture content into bite-sized pieces that students can study at their convenience, Barnwell frees up class time for more complex interactions where his presence can truly make a difference.

Barnwell’s emphasis on technology goes hand in hand with a personal, involved approach to education. “He’s a really nice guy who takes a lot of time to get to know his students,” Bakhtiar said. 

Barnwell’s teaching concepts reach beyond the classroom. He’s collaborating with Hu to create a series of modules on pain management that would be distributed through Chinese social media to health care professionals in that country. The work is funded by a grant from the International Association for the Study of Pain.

Barnwell is also pursuing a Ph.D. in health related sciences in the College of Health Professions. With the research skills he will gain, Barnwell hopes to enhance his clinical practice by studying applications of ultrasound for anesthesia and to design studies that can determine how effective his educational ideas are for students.

“It’s hard to find educators who have a foot in both the clinical arena and in the academic arena,” said Michael D. Fallacaro, D.N.S., professor and chair of the Department of Nurse Anesthesia in the College of Health Professions. Barnwell “is able to bring that clinical expertise into the classroom, and vice versa, in an innovative and highly energized way,” Fallacaro said.

Barnwell said his emphasis on technology comes from his desire to find more time for the human element in all interactions. “If I can find more efficient ways for students to learn the material, then they have more time with their family. If I find more efficient ways for system processes to happen in an operating room, then we get more time for that clinician and that patient,” he said.

While many clinicians get into health care to take care of others in a time of need, the grueling day-to-day aspects of limited time and resources can often leave them struggling to maintain that purpose, especially when they are under pressure to meet productivity and speed expectations, Barnwell said.

“This is my heart, what really underpins why I do these things,” he said. “I dream of caring for my students in the classroom and modeling for them the sort of engagement and interaction and care that I want them to then carry out into the clinical setting. I think if enough of us do this in schools across the country in multiple disciplines, then in a generation you change the ethos in health care back to a truly patient-centered, individual-centered model.”