When the College of Saint Benedict was ready to launch a Doctor of Nursing Practice program, Denise Christie ’00 was ready.
And when Christie decided she wanted her doctorate, CSB probably couldn’t have admitted a better candidate to lead the way. She has practiced as a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) for the past 17 years at St. Cloud Hospital and recently was named to its 15-person advisory board – the only member who also is an advanced practice registered nurse and someone who can lead from the perspective of the hundreds of nurses in the CentraCare health system.
Two years ago, it’s hard to say who needed who more. Of the dozen candidates to enroll in the first DNP class at CSB, Christie was the only one who’d already achieved a master’s degree. As a Saint Ben’s alumna and someone with significant experience, she instantly gave credibility to the new program and became a standard bearer for the first class of a dozen DNP students. And yet, Christie needed her alma mater just as much – if not more – in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when she carried a code pager on her hip, knowing that when it went off it meant a patient could no longer breathe on their own.
“Some of my motivation, to be honest, was mental healing,” she said. “I would respond and intubate these patients and you didn’t know if they were going to make it. This was during a time when their families couldn’t be with them, either. Sometimes my eyes were the last ones these people would see. Those were some hard years where we saw some really awful things. It was emotionally taxing on staff – nurses especially. So, I was coming from a place of hurt and wanting to grow and move on at that time. And I was also motivated by the fact that – nationwide – we work in a broken health care system. I want to do what I can to make it better.”
On Friday, Aug. 25, Christie started to get a chance to do just that after she received her doctoral hood and Leadership DNP – the first ever conferred at Saint Ben’s – in a ceremony at the Gorecki Family Theater in CSB’s Benedicta Arts Center. Her graduation was poignantly 50 years after the schools’ undergraduate program first launched. And if anyone could speak to the magnitude of the occasion, it was her advisor Jennifer Peterson ’98, DNP, APRN, FNP-C, CNOR and chair of the nursing department’s graduate programs.
“It feels like a dream come true,” Peterson said. “This is something that has been in the works for a long time and is finally now coming to fruition. We knew there were needs in the community that could be served by a graduate program. It took a while to get there, so to see our first graduate is very special and rewarding.”
Denise Christie '00 (second from right) receives her Doctor of Nursing Practice degree from College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University President Brian Bruess during a ceremony on Friday, August 25. Provost Richard Ice presents Christie's doctoral hood as Jennifer Peterson, chair of the graduate nursing program, addresses the crowd in attendance.
First of many graduates to come
Most students will need three years to complete their DNP, which requires being on campus 1-3 times per course per semester. CSB offers two tracks. One, which Christie pursued in accelerated form since she has a master’s of nursing anesthesia from the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, focuses on developing specialized expertise to become an agent for change in the evolving healthcare landscape. She’s now equipped with the versatility to pursue roles managing a nursing staff, perhaps to teach, and can sit for certification by the American Organization for Nursing Leadership as well as the National League for Nursing.
The other DNP track is for those who want to become a family nurse practitioner (FNP). Ten of the remaining 11 students who started their DNP with Christie are pursuing their FNP. They, along with another Leadership DNP, will graduate in the spring of 2024.
While other DNP students are from around the region and didn’t necessarily get their undergraduate degree from Saint Ben’s or Saint John’s, Christie knew the timing was right to get her doctorate when she saw the first flyer announcing the launch of the program in 2021.
“I felt that when I left Saint Ben’s with my BSN, I was well-prepared to enter into the field of nursing,” Christie said. “I had great experiences and a quality education without having to worry about whether I was keeping up with my peers as new nurses … I thought there would be nothing better than to go back to what was tried and true for me. I had a great experience, and I was not disappointed.”
Christie has dabbled in some leadership duties at St. Cloud Hospital but said she kept waiting for something to come along, some sort of training that would make her feel more qualified to do so.
“Since I have a growth mindset and am interested in learning new things, I thought I would be more marketable with a leadership doctorate,” she said. “I knew the DNP program was going to guarantee clinical placement when I enrolled, but I don’t think I could’ve had a better experience.”
Faculty and administrators marked the occasion of the first Doctor of Nursing Practice graduate from CSB. From left are: Provost Richard Ice, Mary Pesch, Carrie Hoover, Carie Braun, Denise Christie, Rachelle Larson, Jennifer Peterson, Georgia Hogenson, Mary Larson, Julie Strelow, Mary Zelenak and President Brian Bruess.
Clinical rotations with the best in the field
Christie was matched with Joy Plamann, DNP, RN, who is president of St. Cloud Hospital and executive vice president and chief operating officer of CentraCare, and Bobbie Bertram, DNP, CNP, who is CentraCare’s director of advanced practice providers.
“Joy and Bobbie definitely opened my view to systems and how they function,” Christie said. “They got me to think beyond just that departmental view that it’s easy to get stuck in. I remember Joy asked me, ‘What’s your end game, Denise?’ and I said, ‘I don’t want a bus to come by that I want to ride and not have the ticket to get on.’ I wanted the credentials so that, if I saw something that was going to be my passion, I would be ready.”
Christie also had a clinical rotation with Carol Daniel, DNP, at the St. Mary’s-University of Minnesota School of Anesthesia. Christie is a member of the school’s staff, coordinating its student registered nurse anesthetist experiences at St. Cloud Hospital.
“What’s unique about Denise as our first graduate is that she’s already integrated in the community,” Peterson said. “She’s very respected within CentraCare. Joy Plamann and Bobbie Bertram have seen the potential in her for bigger things, and she’s going to be ready for those opportunities because of her schooling. She’s going to be out there now representing our program, having gained her DNP from the College of Saint Benedict while serving in prestigious positions. It’s a great way to start.”
Christie’s DNP graduate paper, published in July, was titled “Drug Diversion Education for the Anesthesia Provider Plus One.” She chose the topic in part because she’s known three peers during her career who lost their lives too soon to drug diversion.
“It’s a problem in anesthesia because of the stressful work environment, access to drugs and the knowledge of how to use them,” Christie said. “My project was not just educating the providers but having them bring someone – a plus-one, a spouse, significant other, whoever it was – with to the training. That provides an extra layer of protection because a lot of people can hold things together at work, but you can’t do it 24/7. Someone somewhere is going to notice something.”
Denise said the support of her husband, Jeremy Christie '99, has been crucial to her career and her recent steps to earn her Doctor of Nursing Practice. Their children (14-year-old Lauren, 10-year-old Teddy and 12-year-old Jackson) saw her hard work pay off when she received her doctoral hood on Friday, August 25, at the Gorecki Family Theater.
Gratitude for her support network
Denise, who was born at St. Cloud Hospital and graduated from Sartell High School, met her husband, Jeremy Christie ’99, as an undergraduate. They moved to Rochester so she could work at the Methodist Campus of the Mayo Clinic Hospital. In 2006, they migrated home and started a family. With Jeremy, who teaches seventh-grade science in the Sauk Rapids-Rice School District, she has three children (Lauren 14; Jackson 12; and Teddy 10). She’s excited for them to be part of her doctoral graduation.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky to be so supported,” Denise said. “In addition to Jeremy, our family stepped in when the kids needed rides, or they were hanging out at the neighbors’ because mom was writing a paper. And I think our graduate nursing department exemplifies the Benedictine values you find at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s – specifically hospitality. The faculty is there for you, they were welcoming and ready to lend an ear or a hand whenever I needed one.
“I certainly have a sense of pride in accomplishing this. It was a hard two-year commitment. It wasn’t necessary for me to continue practicing anesthesia. It was a choice. And so, to complete something that helped me grow as a leader and put me in a position to potentially give back, that is rewarding. But I don’t love to have all eyes on me. That’s a little anxiety provoking unless I have something important to say. I’m not about the recognition.”
Like it or not, she will go down in history as the first DNP graduate at Saint Ben’s.
“She has the potential to do great things,” said Peterson, who someday would like to recruit Christie as a faculty colleague – even on a part-time basis. “She was brave enough to be part of that first cohort. I say that because there are always unexpected things you encounter when you go through this process for the first time. In that way, a lot of the faculty and students have grown together. Because of that, Denise and the others who will graduate in the spring will always be a very special group. We’ve forged relationships that are very significant.”
They go both ways.
“The education they offered me was elite,” Christie said of the nursing faculty. “I went into my clinicals with Joy Plamann and I was not worried that I didn’t have the knowledge or information to sit in that C-suite with her. And if that was significant for me, wait until you see the people I call my classmates, even though they’re nine months behind me. The future of nursing is bright. Those are some amazing women and I’m honored to have walked alongside them for part of their journey.”
Brian Bruess, president of CSB and SJU, and Provost Richard Ice participate in the ceremony to award Denise Christie her Doctor of Nursing Practice degree.