When it comes to nurse anesthesia, Sylvia Bernassoli, CRNA, has seen it all. For the past 56 years, the 79-year-old has been caring for patients, finding her niche as an in vitro fertilization nurse. She will continue to help bring children into the world long after she is gone with a more than half-million-dollar donation to the Magee-Womens Hospital of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Bernassoli got her start in anesthesia shortly after graduating from nursing school in 1955. She was overwhelmed and exhausted from working with so many patients. After talking with a CRNA at the hospital, she learned that anesthetists only focus on one patient at a time—for a significantly higher salary.
“I looked at her and said, ‘That’s for me!’” said Bernassoli. She graduated from the St. Francis School of Anesthesia, Pittsburgh, in 1957 to find herself in a world of anesthesia starkly different from today.
When she first started as a CRNA, Bernassoli used a gas machine and ether masks to anesthetize all of her patients. EKGs were only used in emergencies and pulse oximeters weren’t around—nurses monitored patients by keeping their fingers on the pulse. Modern procedures like intubation and drugs like propofol were not common practice. Within several years, fast-acting propofol began to be used.
“I thought I’d died and went to heaven,” said Bernassoli. “We were really archaic.”
She recently narrowed her focus even further, spending all her time with in vitro fertilization patients at the Magee-Womens Hospital. Since most cases were done in the morning, the change allowed her to scale back when she worked.
“There comes a time in your life when you can’t do all the heroics anymore,” said Bernassoli. “What really drew me to the IVF is working with young, healthy patients. That’s every anesthetist’s dream.”
Her patients take note of her impeccable bedside manner. Bernassoli takes care of every hopeful mother in the same caring, attentive way.
Liane Santilli, CRNA, was a patient of Bernassoli’s who gave birth to twins.
“When a woman goes through infertility treatments like I did, it can be a very stressful and emotional time,” said Santilli. “Sylvia immediately made me feel comfortable with the procedure and all of the emotional aspects that occur.”
“She became a wonderful friend to me,” she continued.
Bernassoli remembers Santilli with equal fondness.
“I have enough pictures of [her twins] to fill an album,” she said, laughing. “That’s how many pictures she’s sent me.”
Her connection with patients and dedication to helping mothers have children are what inspired Bernassoli last year to leave a portion of her life savings to the Magee clinic—a gift of more than half a million dollars. The money will enable research that will hopefully allow 12- and 13-year-old girls undergoing chemotherapy to become mothers when they are of age.
Bernassoli said in vitro research is an area that needs funding but doesn’t receive donations because of the perceived lack of illness. She’s hoping to change that.
“People won’t donate because they say ‘these people can’t have a baby, but they’re not sick,’” she said.
The donation, the largest Magee has received in the last 10 years, received nationwide media attention.
“I’ve gotten beautiful letters from people I never met,” said Bernassoli. “When people read the articles [about the donation], they sent cards to Magee, then they sent them to me. I was shocked.”
With her legacy seemingly assured, Bernassoli will continue to connect with patients a while longer. Her contract at Magee is up in June 2014, and she anticipates a 6-month transition period with her replacement. A friend, Athena Sarris, CEO of Sarris Candies, offered her a job at the candy factory outside Pittsburgh.
“I said, ‘You’re safe with me because you know I won’t eat any of your candy,’” said Bernassoli, who is fasting from candy for the rest of her life. But she’s not sure what’s on the horizon.
“I’ve done nothing but work all my life,” she said. “I’ve loved every minute of it.”