Whenever a co-worker asks Curtis N. Sessler, M.D., F’85, how he’s doing, Sessler’s response is simple and telling: “I’m living the dream.”
According to nursing leaders, Curtis N. Sessler, M.D., F’85, was ahead of his time in fostering an environment where physicians, nurses and other members of the care team work together.
Sessler, the Orhan Muren Distinguished Professor of Medicine in the Division of Pulmonary Disease and Critical Care Medicine in the VCU Department of Internal Medicine, has earned a national reputation for helping patients in the ICU, conducting groundbreaking research and working with several organizations to improve care delivery.
Sessler credits much of his success to mentors – including his professorship namesake, Orhan Muren, M.D. – and colleagues, particularly in nursing. His longstanding commitment to teamwork, and the achievements it helped produce, recently led him to receive the Pioneering Spirit Award from the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses.
“It is pretty unusual for a physician to receive an award from a nursing association,” says Sessler, who also serves as the medical director of critical care and the medical respiratory intensive care unit with VCU Health. “Over three decades of ICU patient care, I’ve had the pleasure of working hand in hand with ICU nurses. That has been a big part of my career. The accomplishment is the positive impact we’ve had on patient outcomes and healthcare professional well-being.”
According to AACN leaders, Sessler was ahead of his time in health care delivery, fostering an environment in which physicians, nurses and other members of the care team work together more readily than they had in the past.
“Curt Sessler personifies AACN’s healthy work environment standard of true collaboration,” says AACN Chief Clinical Officer Connie Barden, M.S.N., R.N. “Long before teamwork and collaboration were the norm, Curt worked with colleagues from many disciplines to conduct research on the best approaches to care for critically ill patients.”
Each member of the care team fills an indispensible role. Early in his career, Sessler learned to respect each role and, in turn, build a more complete picture of each patient and his or her needs.
“Nurses spend hours and hours with patients and their families—that’s unique on the team,” Sessler says. “It’s important to bring different skill sets, and that voices are heard from all members of the team.”
Although the ICU is his primary workplace, Sessler’s influence is widely felt, and in many cases nurses served as key partners.
In research, Sessler undertook a number of investigations with counterparts in the VCU School of Nursing, specifically AACN leaders Cindy Munro, Ph.D., R.N., now dean of the University of Miami School of Nursing and Health Studies, and Mary Jo Grap, Ph.D., R.N., who retired in 2015 after a stellar research career. Perhaps their most important breakthrough was the Richmond Agitation-Sedation Scale or RASS, a tool that measures agitation and level of responsiveness in hospitalized patients.
“We had a tremendous research partnership, tackling important causes of infections as well as how best to provide comfort and sedation in the ICU,” Sessler says. “The RASS is probably the most used scale of its kind in the world now.”
Sessler also has served in leadership roles for influential health care organizations. This includes serving as president of the American College of Chest Physicians (CHEST) and working with the Critical Care Societies Collaborative (CCSC), which links AACN, CHEST, the American Thoracic Society and the Society of Critical Care Medicine.
“The work with CCSC has been especially satisfying as it emphasizes the importance of collaboration at a national level,” Sessler said.
Sessler’s imprint on critical care is clear, and his commitment to collaboration is a big driver of that success—and his latest accolade.
“The thing that I hold close is a strong belief in the power of a team,” Sessler says. “If everyone is pulling together in the same direction, we can get a lot done.”
By Scott Harris