Class of 2019: Service to patients and to his profession guides nurse anesthesia doctoral student

Z. Bakhitar in front of the Virginia State Capitol.
Z. Bakhtiar has lobbied legislators in Richmond and Washington, D.C., to increase opportunities for Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists to practice, which would give patients better access to health care in rural and remote regions. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Z. Bakhtiar’s career journey brought him from Oregon to Richmond and from Richmond to Capitol Hill in Washington and back – all while working as a critical care nurse, then studying as a graduate student registered nurse anesthetist.  

As a Doctor of Nurse Anesthesia Practice student at Virginia Commonwealth University, Bakhtiar has spent time lobbying General Assembly members in Richmond’s statehouse and members of Congress in Washington, advocating on behalf of student nurse anesthetists and certified registered nurse anesthetists, whose ranks he will be joining when he graduates this month.

“Advocacy has always been important to me because I don’t see my role as just a clinician in an operating room doing anesthesia day in and day out. That’s a part of my role, but there’s a bigger picture,” he said. “To really grasp that bigger picture, you need to be out there with your local, state and federal organizations.”

From the time Bakhtiar came to the Department of Nurse Anesthesia in the VCU College of Health Professions, he has been active with the Virginia Association of Nurse Anesthetists and the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists. He has served as a state representative for the organization’s fundraising arm.

“VCU is the best program in the country for nursing anesthesia,” Bakhtiar said. “I wanted to go to a doctoral program because there was more of an emphasis on advocacy.

“Doctoral programs make you take a look at the system at large, and we have a lot of courses where their emphasis is how you can be a leader within the profession. Not just, ‘This is your role in the operating room,’ but rather, ‘What does it mean to be an advocate? What does it mean to work with lobbyists? And how do you push an agenda forward at the legislative level?’”

The VCU program’s focus on advocacy and its No. 1 ranking are what drew him from his home state of Oregon.

I came into medicine because I see medicine as a vehicle for humanitarian work.

Through his advocacy, Bakhtiar said he has worked to ensure that laws allow certified registered nurse anesthetists to practice to the full extent of their training, which could improve access to health care and help reduce costs for patients.

While VCU’s Department of Nurse Anesthesia is working to address shortages in remote-area health care, rural and remote areas frequently face shortages of anesthesia professionals, according to a report in the July 2019 Anesthesia & Analgesia journal. Bakhtiar said nurse anesthetists frequently fill those gaps in rural health care, a field with which he has extensive experience. 

As a nursing student at Oregon Health and Science University, Bakhtiar started a program to provide health screenings to undocumented migrant farmworkers in rural southern Oregon, organizing faculty, student and hospital partnerships to set up a biannual free clinic at the Mexican consulate. By his final year of nursing school, hundreds of people were attending the screenings to receive care.

“I came into [the field of] medicine because I see medicine as a vehicle for humanitarian work,” said Bakhtiar, who also taught health classes to homeless teenagers in Oregon to give them nutrition and first-aid advice.

Continuing his outreach and educational efforts are part of Bakhtiar’s plan when he returns to Oregon to start work as a certified registered nurse anesthetist in Portland. But he said his days of working with legislators as an advocate, locally in Oregon and federally in Washington, are not over.

Traveling 3,000 miles to be at VCU, Bakhtiar isn’t afraid to go twice as far to carry out further humanitarian work. Looking ahead a few years after graduation, he said he would like to go to the Middle East to provide health care to people in need. Bakhtiar’s family fled the Iranian revolution in 1979, and he feels this shaped how he sees his role as someone dedicated to serving others.

“Recognizing your own personal privilege … ought to lead to a moral obligation to fight for those who are not privileged. To me, I think that’s what it’s all about, especially in this country where we are so privileged, and most of us have no idea,” he said. “This all stems from understanding the human condition and that life is hard for a lot of people. So we ought to be compassionate, and we ought to do what we can to help those people.”

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