Meet Heidi Jahnke: Research Nurse Clinician, Neurosurgery

When Heidi Jahnke reflects on her past 30 years as a research nurse clinician at Barrow Neurological Institute, she’s most proud of her contributions to the way patients with stroke are evaluated and treated in the Emergency Department.

When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the clot-busting drug tPA (tissue plasminogen activator) for the treatment of acute ischemic stroke in 1996, emergency departments faced the challenge of expediting assessment and treatment to within the three-hour window indicated for tPA.

Jahnke and Dr. James Frey, former director of the Barrow Stroke Program, addressed this challenge by creating two different stroke teams and a standardized set of assessment and treatment instructions for each to follow.

Working with neurosurgeons and head injury patients really fascinated me. Our knowledge of the brain is ever-changing.

-Heidi Jahnke, Research Nurse Clinician

When a patient arrives at the hospital less than six hours from symptom onset, a triage nurse activates Stroke Team One. When a patient arrives six or more hours from symptom onset or their symptoms resolve before arrival, as in a transient ischemic attack, the nurse mobilizes Stroke Team Two.

These care pathways helped our stroke team identify patients who might be eligible for tPA more quickly and significantly reduced “door-to-needle” tPA administration times.

Jahnke also collaborated with former Barrow President and CEO Dr. Robert Spetzler on a clinical database of patients with cerebrovascular disorders and clinical trials for carotid endarterectomy. This procedure involves removing plaque from the inside of the carotid arteries to restore normal blood flow and prevent stroke.

Jahnke’s work hasn’t only been instrumental in the treatment of patients with stroke, however. Following a spike in opioid overdose deaths in the United States in 2016, Jahnke and the providers at the Barrow Pituitary Center published a study on postoperative pain control following transsphenoidal surgery for pituitary tumors. The study found that intravenous ibuprofen significantly improved pain scores and reduced the need for opioid use among these patients.

From the Bedside to Research

Jahnke discovered she had an interest in neuroscience while working in the Trauma Intensive-Care Unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, where Barrow is located.

“Working with neurosurgeons and head injury patients really fascinated me,” she recalled. “Our knowledge of the brain is ever-changing.”

Portrait of Heidi Jahnke in front of US News logo
Heidi Jahnke, Research Nurse Clinician

The Trauma ICU was Jahnke’s first nursing job after graduating from the University of Arizona in 1982. She decided to pursue nursing after doing internships in physical therapy and realizing it wasn’t the right fit. Her mother, also a nurse, talked about the many different jobs available in the field. Jahnke later earned her Master of Science in Nursing from the University of Phoenix.

Besides working at a California hospital for a couple of years, Jahnke has spent her entire career at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

“When I came back, the same people were still here,” she remembered. “People care and love the mission and philosophy. It’s always been a great place to work.”

She came back to St. Joseph’s as a pool nurse, floating around different units, before transitioning to research in 1990.

‘Supercharging’ Clinical Research at Barrow

Today, Jahnke continues to collect and analyze data on patients with cerebrovascular disorders with Dr. Spetzler’s successor, Dr. Michael Lawton. She built the Barrow Registry for Aneurysms and Vascular Outcomes.

“Clinical research is the means to discover whether our techniques and treatments are working, and clinical research without good data is impossible,” Dr. Lawton said. “That’s why it’s critical to find someone hardworking and trustworthy who will not only collect and analyze data but also interface compassionately with the patients. Heidi is that person.”

She has supercharged our clinical research. Barrow is lucky to have her.

-Dr. Michael Lawton

Jahnke said interacting with patients and asking them to be part of medical advancements is one of the aspects of the job she enjoys most. She finds it rewarding to be able to offer a trial to an eligible patient, explain the study in a way that they understand, and walk them through the process.

“She has supercharged our clinical research,” Dr. Lawton said. “She has been dedicated to this work for three decades and running many complex studies at once. Barrow is so lucky to have her.”

Although Jahnke was ready to put the adrenaline of the Trauma ICU behind her, she believes her bedside nursing experience makes her a stronger research nurse clinician.

“Bedside experience provides the practical knowledge to make critical clinical decisions,” she said. “If you’re a nurse and want to be involved in clinical research, work at the bedside in your area of interest for a few years. You’ll be much better prepared.”

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