CRNA 26 | Invest In Yourself

Are you holding yourself back from CRNA school because you’ve got a family? Navigating school while raising little ones and maintaining happy family relationships can certainly be challenging, but it’s not impossible!

Today, we are joined by Sara Conner, a first-year SRNA who is absolutely KILLIN’ it! Even with 3 young children, Sara is thriving in her program and at home, while investing in herself by not putting off her dream.

In this episode, Sara shares her insights and lessons, including:

  • The biggest mindset shifts she has had to make along the way (including ditching the perfectionism at home AND in school)
  • Key strategies for navigating the costs of school while still taking care of their family
  • Creating a schedule and arranging childcare in a way that makes space for her school work
  • The vital importance of a strong support system and asking for help when you need it
  • How she’s passing on a legacy of working toward your dreams to her children (and why you shouldn’t listen to the horror stories!)

So go grab your kiddos and listen to today’s episode together, future CRNA! You’ve got this!

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Guest SRNA Sara Conner: What Is It Like To Be A Parent In CRNA School?

I have a very special guest who is Sara. We go way back to 2019. I think it was the fall. It was a long time ago at this point, but I’m super excited to bring her on here because she is going through what many of you are afraid of, which is anesthesia school with young children. I’m excited to debunk some of these myths, and have her share how she’s been doing in school with a family and juggling all the things. Something that’s unique about Sara too that I’ll let her tell you about is that she has a husband who’s a firefighter. That throws a little twist into things as well. Sara, go ahead and tell everyone about who you are and all the good stuff.

My name is Sara. I am a first-year anesthesia student. I do have three kids. My oldest is homeschooled because of COVID, so he is home with me, then I have two little ones. I want to preface this whole conversation with I’m a parent going through anesthesia school in the middle of a global pandemic. The things that I say might be different. At least my program is looking at ways to alter how they deliver education in the future. Maybe leaning towards more of a hybrid model with the possibility of keeping online an option. Also looking at the possibility of offering a part-time option so that people can still work. Everybody’s experience is different. These are my suggestions. They may or may not work for you. Again, my situation is going to be different because we’re going through COVID.

Very great point. I can’t even imagine the whole homeschooling and everything having been so up and down. I hope that a year or two from now if you guys are reading this that things are more normal, you never know. As you said, maybe they will open opportunities for a unique structure for school that will maybe be more flexible for the family.

That’s what I’m talking to one of my professors about doing my doctoral project. Talking to students, anesthesia students that are in and seeing how this pandemic and the shift to online learning has impacted their learning, what people’s learning styles are, how they think, the delivery is going and things like that. More to come, possibly.

I’m excited to see that when that comes out. We’ll go ahead and get into some of the questions. One of the first questions I have is, when deciding to go back to CRNA school, what were your concerns or worries about having a family? How did you overcome that?

Two of my biggest fears were the financial situation because my husband and I are used to having two incomes. We have three kids and a mortgage. I was worried about that, and also how I was going to get work done with COVID and the school shut down. As far as finances go, I could do a whole episode just on that in and of itself of suggestions that I’ve gathered from people and things that I’ve heard. I didn’t have this long-drawn-out application process. It is some of the things I didn’t have time to do but they’re awesome suggestions.

If people reach out to you and they want more information on that, you can always put them in touch with me. What my husband and I did was we paid off our cars. The only debt that we have now is our mortgage, and the monthly bills to pay for living in a house, but we don’t have any debt aside from that. He’s a fireman as you mentioned. He had no school student loans. I was fortunate enough to be able to pay for my BSN without having to take out any loans doing it slowly online and using tuition reimbursement, things like that.

Financially, that’s how we prepared. I go to school with someone who sold their house and moved in with parents, even though they have kids to help with that. The military is another great option. As far as COVID and having kids home at school, we bit the bullet and had to put our two youngest in private school because that was the only thing that was open.

That would have been a challenge even finding childcare, let alone schooling. It was not cheap. Finance was a big fear. Did you say you had one more fear other than your finances?

The finances, and how I was going to accomplish schoolwork with kids being at home.

How’s the homeschooling been going?

Invest In Yourself
The stimulus money that has helped put a cushion in our savings account won’t be here forever. The thing about loans is no one wants to take them out.

He is a smart, self-directed kid. Again, we had to pay money to get him a program. You wouldn’t call it homeschooling because I’m not teaching him. He has a program. He logs on. He has live teachers, books, and things like that. He’s homeschooled like the rest of the country where he’s at home doing lessons online but it’s not through our local public school. It’s through a homeschooling program.

Good to know. I wanted to point that out, too, because I didn’t want people to think that you had time yourself to homeschool. I’m also very thankful that you shared that despite being afraid of the finances, you took some necessary steps to better yourself as much as you could anyways and you jumped all in and did it. Have you had any issues getting out loans that you need? A lot of people worry about that.

No. In fact, we have been lucky enough to pretty much survive on what he makes and with overtime. I haven’t even had to take out the cost of living loan. Again, everybody’s situation is different. I’ve heard of people, in the time that they’re planning to go to school, nurses are working a ton, pocketing the money, putting it in savings, or whatever for that. Another thing I’ve heard of people doing is every time they go to the grocery store, they buy themselves a gas gift card, a grocery gift card, or eating out gift cards. They’re stockpiling those things so it’s not coming out of your funds when you are in school, paying down debt, and all these things.

That’s a good idea with the gift cards. I wouldn’t have thought about that. To put it in perspective from my own experience with you guys, we paid for our own wedding, which was a very expensive wedding. I also took on the burden of all my undergrad loans. I had about $80,000 undergrad loans when I went back to grad school. While I had no hope of ever getting that tackled, I did manage to pay for our wedding in full and managed to save after about 60 hours a week of overtime for a year about $10,000 as our emergency fund before we started school.

I should say my husband also was working but it wasn’t enough to quite cover everything, so I took out loans for tuition and some living expenses. Essentially, I made sure I took out all the extra they could offer me. I put it into a savings account. That way, it’s going to replenish my emergency fund. In my 28 months in school, I went through all that $10,000 and then some. I’m not good with money. I never claimed that to be the case. My dog got sick. My car broke down. I ended up being asked to be a maid of honor at a wedding that was out of state. Stuff happens.

By the time I was done with school, there was a three-month limbo period between graduating and getting that first paycheck. I took out a $10,000 credit card loan, 0% on one of my credit cards so we could make it from graduation until when I got my first paycheck from August to October. Now, I had eighteen months to pay that off with 0% interest so it was no big deal but to give you guys some options. If you have good credit, you’re going to have more options on how to fund school.

Make sure you, again, as Sara said, pay down outstanding credit card debt and make sure your credit score is as good as it can be because it’ll give you more financing options and usually at a better interest rate. Don’t be afraid of private loans. A lot of people lean on the government, which is fine but you can get better interest rates through private loans a lot of times. Compare and it takes some extra steps.

You’ve got to explore the options.

Some private loans don’t allow for parents so it’s important to understand the terms that come with all different loan options. There are so many options out there. The government has only one avenue of getting your school paid for.

This is something unique to our situation and what’s going on now. The stimulus money has helped put a cushion in our savings account that won’t be here forever. The thing about loans is no one wants to take them out. I get it. I don’t either. It makes me sick to my stomach physically to know that I have that much money out. For some reason, my mind doesn’t reconcile that with a mortgage, even though that’s a lot of money too.

CRNAs are in high demand. A lot of companies are giving loans, reimbursement, or sign-on bonuses even for new grads. If you’re married and you get benefits through your spouse; my husband is a fireman. He gets good benefits. I don’t need medical benefits when I graduate. I plan on negotiating for a higher rate for a higher reimbursement bonus.

Pay down outstanding credit card debt and make sure your credit score is as good as it can be because it'll give you more financing options and usually at a better interest rate, too. Click To Tweet

If you get used to living below your means like we all are in school because we’re all poor, keep your head down, hustle when you get out, and you can pay your loans back quickly if that is something you want to do. That’s my plan. I wasn’t going to get out of school and be like, “I’m a CRNA,” and start spending money. I’m going to throw everything at my loans.

That’s very smart. We did the same thing. In two years, without even knowing it, we paid off $90,000. All the extra I made, all the overtime, all the QPI bonuses, and everything went into my student loans. Obviously, that changed once we had kids. We bought a house and got a car but as you said, if you stick to your current living arrangement right after school for a period of time, you can pay down a lot of debt.

They keep extending for federal. I don’t know how long this is going to go but they keep extending the deadline for interest-free. As of now, I’ve been in school for 9 or 10 months and we haven’t had an interest on any of the loans at all yet because of COVID.

That’s amazing. Now is a good time to go back.

I didn’t get in the first time I applied. I was devastated, obviously, but I was told by the director of the program at that time who also didn’t get in the first time he applied. He was like, “Trust the timing.” I feel like had I gotten the year prior, it probably would have been catastrophic. Both of my kids were in preschool. They were only gone part of the time. There wasn’t all this COVID stuff. We would have had to go to school. Even though it’s a lot of self-teaching, the benefit of that to people with families is that I’m a little bit more free to like, “I’ll watch this lecture when they’re gone or this or that.” I’m not tied into a schedule, so that’s been helpful too.

Question number two, what are some things you did in the beginning prior to starting school that you feel helped you prepare for this?

First of all, I want to say, I don’t think anything can prepare you for school. You read the forums and you think, “This is going to be a disaster. People are getting divorced. Their children hate them. They’re never around,” and that’s not the case. If you talk to people you can trust and that have gone through it before, especially in my case or other people with kids, I leaned on not only people that went through my program prior to me but also people with kids to find out how they did that.

You have to roll with the punches, take it day by day, and take things as they come but my family was on board with this. We prepared everyone. My parents live in our neighborhood. My dad is retired. My father-in-law also lives in my neighborhood and he is retired. Getting everybody on board about what this was going to be like ahead of time, talking to people that went through at first, making sure my spouse was understanding and trying to plan things as best as you can to try to handle financial stuff. You can’t go into it blindly because the amount of work is a shock.

I would say mostly, taking it day by day. A lot of people ask, what can I do to prepare school-wise beforehand? I tell everybody don’t do that. Our program says the same thing. Take the trip, read for pleasure, binge on Netflix, and nap. Do that stuff before you get in because you’re not going to have a lot of time in the program.

I know you still take naps.

I do still nap. I have to. It’s my self-care but I juggle my napping and my exercising based on my week like, “This is exam week, so I’m not doing that this week because I have to prep but next week, I’ll be back to napping.”

Invest In Yourself
This is a hard mindset to shift. We’re all type-A personalities. We’re all used to getting straight As to get here. It’s that competitive. But this is a terminal degree, and all you have to do is pass.

You’re right. You don’t want to give up everything that’s you. As you said, your nap was as high on your priority list as you knew you needed that for self-care and preparing your loved ones for what’s ahead. Setting the expectation ahead of time that you’re not going to be hearing “yes” from me all the time and you’re going to hear “no” more often. It’s not because I don’t want to. It’s just temporary because I’m in school.

The spouse thing is important too because it’s a team effort. Even more so when you’re in school, you’re going to be leaning more heavily on them and they have to be not only willing but understanding to that and know that it’s temporary. You’re doing this for your whole family. The rewards are going to be there once you’re done for everyone. I think those are all great points. As you said, there’s nothing you can do to truly prepare because it is a workload you’ve never experienced before.

As far as what can you do ahead of time, many people want to get a head start. Don’t get me wrong. You can if you want to study a little bit but don’t study anesthesia. You can’t learn anesthesia out of context. It’s a different approach to Pharmacology and a little bit of Physics or Chemistry. You can’t learn anesthesia concepts like the blood gas coefficient of the sevoflurane prior to starting school.

It would be way over your head. It’s important to take that time to spend with your friends and your family, take a trip on a budget or do things that you enjoy that you know you might not have as much time for once school starts. One thing that we did was we went to Yosemite, which was amazing. I hope to go back there someday.

I love Yosemite. I’m from California so I go there a lot.

I remember driving into that park and being jaw-dropped by the mountains and the cliffs.

It’s beautiful every season.

It is. We went end of May or the middle of May. It was perfect because it wasn’t too hot. It had waterfalls. We took that trip. We did a trip in school too. We went to Puerto Rico. People always make school sound like you’re going to get divorced. You’re going to be miserable but it’s not the case. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not super fun. If you have a strong relationship going into school, you’re going to be okay. If you have a relationship that’s on the rocks prior to school starting, you’re going to get ready to be put under a lot of stress. Therefore, it could lead to more problems. As far as having time for enjoyment, you still can find time. I had more time back in school than I have now.

The thing about it is that, and this is a hard mind mindset to shift, we’re all type-A personalities. We’re all used to getting straight As. You had to in order to get here. It’s that competitive but this is a terminal degree. All you have to do is pass. I know that that’s hard for people to be like, “What? I don’t have to get As anymore?” Nobody cares. It’s not worth your sanity. The main things that are important about school are coming out of it making sure that you are a safe and competent practitioner. Sometimes, your grade on the test does not translate. Sometimes, they write terrible tests. You need to understand the concepts to practice safely. That does not mean getting a 4.0.

You don’t have to. Everyone’s benchmark as far as passing is a little bit different on the grading scale. Some school is 80%, some 87%. Know that policy prior to going into school. For me, my mind went where I was. Not that I cared about an A but I wanted that cushion in case I did bomb something or screw up. Ultimately, you’ve got to know your school’s policy on whether they allow you to retake a test, for example. I know my school, if you had something major going on in your life, would allow you to reschedule a test for a different date to make sure that you set yourself up for the most success.

I don’t know if every school is like that but where I go is, that’s another part of your research arm before you’re applying places. Find a school that is family-friendly and understanding. Our cohorts are so small. You become like family. Our teachers are very highly invested in our success but you can’t have a bad attitude. If you can’t do the work, they see that you’re trying, you reach out early, or you’re struggling with something, it impacts their numbers if we don’t do well and we fail or you don’t pass boards the first time or whatever. They want us to do well.

You have to know when to ask for help. If you're drowning, do not be a martyr because if you fail out, you still have to pay back loans, and it impacts more than just you. Click To Tweet

I love how you said, reach out early. That’s the best advice ever. Don’t wait until you have a problem to be saying something. Reach out when you are anticipating a problem or something starting to unravel. That’s when you need to reach out and say, “I need help. I need an intervention here,” because if you wait until a bad grade happens or something else happens, they can’t do anything.

Here’s a small example of that. It’s not important but I’m getting my second COVID vaccine. We have our first pharm exam. I had no reaction to the first vaccine. Everybody is different. I reached out to my teacher and I said, “I’m scheduled to get. I screwed up. I scheduled this. I’m not paying attention all the way. The school won’t let me reschedule the second dose because they take out a certain amount and the dose will be wasted.”

He’s like, “I want you to not miss out on your dose. I have a Zoom.” At this point in the program, they’re having us go-to school to take tests so they can watch us before it was on Zoom proctored but he was like, “I have a Zoom set up for emergencies. Thank you for letting me know ahead of time.” In case I get a fever or whatever and can’t go to class. Even if I have such a reaction that I can’t take the exam, they’re going to be like, “Let’s reschedule it.” Let them know ahead of time instead of being the morning of like, “I got my vaccine yesterday and I feel terrible,” then he’s going to be like, “Okay.”

As long as you are communicating with them. Let them know ahead of time. They will work with you and especially through these family situations, they understand. Life happens and having a family only complicates things. It might not just be you that things are happening to. It could be your kids or your spouse. Again, make sure you’re keeping that communication line open. Let me ask you, do you feel like you still have time for family or do you have any regrets about going back to school?

Absolutely not about regrets. I do still have time for family. I’m getting to the point in my program now since we’re starting anesthesia content, where I feel like I have to be a little more selective about what I sign on for and what I don’t. Again, my husband is a fireman. He is gone at least 24 hours at a time but since I am not working anymore, he’s picking up a ton of overtime. My two youngest kids are gone every day from 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM. When he’s on shift, I have no choice but to do bedtime, bath time, and dinner time, so I am still present. I have to have more grace with myself. If things are a mess, it is what it is. I got to let it go until I can fit that in.

Sometimes, are they getting a four-course meal? No. Sometimes we have breakfast for dinner. They like that. They think it’s exciting. The big thing about that is knowing when to ask for help. Again, because my family is here- I don’t want to abuse the help. If I have a big exam, I’ll be like, “He’s on shift. Can you please watch them so I can study for a bit?”

I don’t want to be asking them all the time because I know when clinical starts and we are gone 40, 50, or 60 hours a week, they’re going to need to be there more and they know that. I’m trying not to take advantage of it now but you have to know when to ask for help. If you’re drowning, do not be a martyr because if you fail out, you still have to pay back loans and it impacts more than just you.

Asking for help is vital. I love how you share with everyone that when he’s gone for 24 hours, you are essentially a single parent doing all the things. That’s hard work. No judgment here. There are nights when our kids eat three bites of food and we’re like, “Go have a fruit roll-up.” Call it the night.

This is temporary.

It’s not going to scar them forever, hopefully. You do what you have to do but ask for help. You mentioned you have family nearby. Support is so important. Don’t get me wrong. If you’re a single parent and you want to go back to school but you don’t have family around, I’m not saying it’s impossible but you’d have to have something or someone to help you.

A nanny or daycare.

Invest In Yourself
The main things that are important about school are coming out of it making sure that you are a safe and competent practitioner. Sometimes, your grade on the test does not translate.

You have to because, in clinical, once that starts, we’re not guaranteed to be let out on time. You could have stayed until 4:30, 5:30, or 6:30. As a student, it’s not your place to say, “Can I go home? I have to get my kids to their soccer game.” You need to make other arrangements for that. Now that sounds harsh and mean but it’s the expectation that once you’re there, you’re committed to this shift; that you’re there whether that be 8, 10, or 12 hours. We let students go early sometimes but you can’t ever count on that on certain days.

That’s your safety. Soak up every ounce of clinical you can. Make the mistakes. See the scary stuff when someone else is still responsible for the patient.

Try new things with your preceptor and say, “Can we try this?” You have a second set of hands. With my students, as long as I know it’s safe, I’ll say, “Let’s go ahead. Why not? Let’s see if this works for you.” It gives you an idea like, “I didn’t like that,” or maybe that was a little more difficult than it had to be but you’re never going to know unless you try. Having someone there who can potentially help you get out of a pinch is nice. You’re paying to be in clinical. You don’t necessarily always want to be looking to leave.

The better clinical experience you get, the better and more comfortable you’re going to be when you’re done. You want to utilize that. You don’t want to be abused. You don’t want to be there twelve hours a day, every day. If you occasionally stay late, I think that’s an okay thing. As long as it’s not a daily occurrence. It’s one of the last questions I have here. If you had to identify three key things that have helped you juggle family and school, what would they be?

Having a place for them to be during the day in school has been integral to my success. I don’t think that I would be able to do this if they were home 24/7. It would not be possible because even though the little ones see me doing work and they know; even when my husband is home, they will walk past him and ask me stuff. Sometimes, I have to tell them, “When you see mommy sitting in this chair, pretend I don’t exist. I have to do this right now.”

Having a place for them to go, whether it be full-time school, daycare, or grandparents’ house on a weekend when I have a big exam coming up, which ties into the second thing, help, and knowing when to ask for it. The third key thing we talked about already was shifting my mindset from getting As and having more grace with myself about what my house looks like and things like that. This is temporary. It’s going to benefit everybody when it’s done. We have to get through it and failure is not an option.

That’s an excellent point. As you said, letting go a little bit. You’re caught up in your own routine prior to school starting and it’s hard to let go of some of the stuff that you were used to being able to do and liked to do. Knowing that the house is not always going to be as nice as it used to be. I’m not going to always get Christmas decorations out the way I want them to be but it’s only for this period of time.

Having the help and knowing when to ask for it is huge in every way. That plays into having kids, to be in the clinical setting, and everything in life. Having a place for them to be during the day that they’re getting what they need and you get what you need. Not feeling guilty about that because they’re happy, cared for, fed, educated and you’re at home educating yourself. It’s again, not feeling that parent guilt of not maybe being as present as you once were.

We’re setting an example of what hard work is. I had my oldest early, when I was younger before I finished school. Grad school is a different ball game especially CRNA school or NP school because we’re nurses. By the time that happens, pretty much everybody has a family. My son has seen me go to school since he was born. I used to take him with me to the daycare at nursing school. In addition to showing them hard work, I’m trying to reiterate. “Get your ducks in a row before you have children.”

Again, you’re setting an example by showing them it’s never too late to go back for your dream and that hard work will pay off. Even if they’re young, they will still know that mommy is working towards something. Those lessons are invaluable for the kids to learn and see and they admire you. They look up to you. Some people are worried about, “My kids are not going to like me anymore.” It’s not the case.

I’ll tell you, my parents were nothing perfect and I love them to death. Kids will love you. They admire you. You’re not going to be perfect. You’re not supposed to be perfect. You’re human. All this is for a payoff, in the long run, to have a better schedule, better work-life balance, a career you love, and hopefully, help them achieve the same thing when they get to be in your shoes someday, too.

Soak up every ounce of clinical that you can. Make the mistakes. See the scary stuff when someone else is still responsible for the patient. Click To Tweet

I’m keeping them going with a trip to Disney. They’ve been promised when we graduate. My daughter is always asking like, “You’re taking a test. Are you going to graduate? Are we going to Disney?” I’m like, “Not yet.”

That’s a good idea. That’s funny you say that because we were hoping to go and it didn’t work out. Now that we’re having another baby, I’m anticipating 2023. Who knows? Maybe we’ll be at Disney around the same time.

That’s the year I graduate.

Thank you, Sara, so much. It has been a pleasure as always. It’s so fun seeing you grow over your time in school. You have been such a huge resource to people. If you have questions, Sara has always been so awesome, helping out many students who are up and coming and a lot of them have now gained acceptance. That is exciting. It’s so awesome to see that. It’s so cool to me to see a community come together and help each other out because that’s all it takes. Paying it forward, being that mentor for someone else and that one person changes their life.

I’m so passionate about this especially for parents and for people that don’t get in the first time. Not getting in the first time could be devastating. It can shoot your confidence but there is a method to the madness. You have to trust the timeline. There are things you can do in the interim to guarantee yourself getting in. As a parent, I was guilty of going on the forums and being like, “Maybe I should not do this.” That’s not the case. I love talking to people about this. I am always willing to answer questions. People can always contact me.

If I think about it, people are way more likely to leave a negative review than a positive review in the forums. If you look at it as a negative review forum, a lot of them are going on there and sharing their negativity. I wish it wasn’t that way but unfortunately, that is the case how a lot of times things work. People are quick to speak their mind when they’re unhappy but when they’re happy, they’re like, “This is great.” They may or may not say something and go out of their way to say something to other people.

Don’t read into the forums too much. Own yourself and your own life. Don’t worry about what everyone else does or what works for them because chances are, it won’t work for you anyway. You and your family are unique. Go out there, chase your dreams, and don’t be afraid. Sara, you’ve been awesome. Thank you so much, everyone. I hope you enjoyed it. Let us know if you have any questions. Feel free to reach out to me via email and I will put you in touch with Sara.

Thank you, Jenny.

Thanks, Sara.


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