When I look back on how I became a biomedical engineer for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), it can seem like I haphazardly fell into the role. But in writing my story, the pieces of my journey begin to fall into place.
I grew up on military bases and was fortunate to live overseas for most of my life until my dad, Brig. Gen. Roger E. Carleton, retired from the Air Force after 29 years. When I moved to St. Louis, MO, for high school, I hadn’t lived anywhere longer than 2.5 years. Change was just a part of military life and you had no choice but to learn to roll with it. Between my dad’s leadership example and my mom’s ingenuity, an engineer began to form.
I loved math and science growing up, and I wanted to do and build things. When it came time to apply to colleges, I checked the box for “engineering.” At Texas A&M, I worked in a lab for one of my biomed professors, James E. Moore, Jr., during my senior year. Despite him being an exceptional professor, the lab work didn’t feel fast paced enough for me. When I received an email about a clinical engineering internship program at UConn, I almost deleted it. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that email!
I read about UConn’s program and immediately applied. Part of the application process was interviewing with healthcare technology management departments at hospitals in the New England area and “matching” with them for the internships. For me, there was one hospital that stood out: the VA Connecticut Healthcare System. The military gave me a remarkable childhood, and now I had the opportunity to give back. I was accepted and spent two amazing years learning all I could about how a hospital biomed shop should run. Not to mention getting to take medical equipment apart and (mostly) putting it back together.
Once I graduated, my future husband and I moved back to St. Louis, where I took the first position I could and spent the next five years working for BJC Healthcare as a clinical equipment planner. However, I knew I wanted to get back to using my degree. One day, a VA recruiter reached out to me about a biomedical engineering position working for the informatics department at the VA’s Veterans Integrated Services Networks (VISN) 15, which covers VA hospitals from Wichita, KS to Marion, IL. Once I did some googling to figure out what on earth that was, I applied and was hired!
My first role was serving as the technical lead for the VA’s Clinical Information System/Anesthesia Record Keeper (CIS/ARK) project. I took my first foray into government contracts, we built up our CIS team. Over the next four years, we transitioned VISN 15’s ICUs, ORs, and recovery areas from paper to electronic records, deploying our systems on time and on budget.
Today, I focus on maintaining the programs and deploying upgrades in addition to new work. The best part is that now that we are electronic, we have measurable data! This enables us to see how our technologies are faring and what areas need improvement so we can focus our efforts.
When I took this position, did I think I was going to learn all about how the VA captures anesthesia workload credit? Definitely not, but since our OR system directly ties into getting our providers workload credit, which influences hiring practices in their departments, I had to educate myself.
Every day at the VA brings a new set of challenges and learning opportunities. My supervisor, a nurse, tells me I’ve been in “nurse’s training” for the past seven years. What makes us work is that our different backgrounds allow us to create meaningful solutions that incorporate both the technical and clinical sides of healthcare. We listen to the concerns of our peers and take responsibility when things need improvement.
We’re continuing to find ways to optimize veteran’s care through technology, deploying systems to collect patient data that empower meaningful analysis that improves patient care. Where I work, we like to say that “the most meaningful reward for a job well done is more work!” It is work that I am happy to do, to serve veterans, to give back to a group of people who sacrificed so much so that I could become the engineer I am today.
Kindall Druker is the technical lead for the Clinical Information System/Anesthesia Record Keeper (CIS/ARK) project for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs VISN 15 Network Office.