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Graduate Spotlight on Kurt Johannessen, SPI, RCS, RDCS(PE)

Kurt Johannessen came to West Coast Ultrasound to become a sonographer, but he did much more than simply learn in his time here at the Beverly Hills Campus. He came to school as a man-on-a-mission, unfazed by the adversity that he faced in changing careers and dealing with family turmoil, and became an inspirational force on campus from day one. He had done his research and knew that the ultrasound field, with its high growth prospects and stable career opportunities, was worth his wholehearted commitment, so he threw himself completely into his new field with a boundless enthusiasm and work ethic that he backed up with a beaming smile and a steady stream of often off-color, but usually hilarious jokes that made him an instant campus favorite. Whether he led by example, as evidenced by the copious amounts of notes that he took in lecture and all the tests and scanning exams that he aced, or whether he led with his words of wisdom and encouragement (or a barrage of those well-timed jokes) in his role as a tutor and student services director, Kurt embodies a rare mixture of qualities that pushes those that are around him to be better students, better sonographers, and better people.

His feats of academia and leadership are made even more impressive by the idea that he not only took on, but flourished in the Pediatric Echosonography and Congenital Heart Disease Program – a program that was taught on both weekend days – maintaining a perfect 4.0 GPA and perfect attendance while he was fully employed at WCUI as Student Services Director. He even managed to stick to his strict regimen of workouts at the local gym, while also leading a lunch-break workout class for employees that he helped spearhead. His level of achievement is rare, and made possible by a special combination of talent, tenacity, and humble character that is well represented in one of his favorite phrases concerning his role in student services: “I work for the students.”   

Although the WCUI family laments the loss of a selfless leader, coworker, and friend, we also celebrate his continued journey in the clinical world as he assumes the position of full-time pediatric cardiovascular sonographer at Pediatrix Cardiology Associates of New Mexico, in Albuquerque. We wish him the best of luck and will hold on to the hope that he returns to visit, or maybe guest lecture, someday soon. See the full interview below.

Interview questions:

1.  What got you interested in ultrasound?  Was there a moment when something “clicked” and you knew you wanted to be a sonographer?

As the printing industry contracted, I realized I was going to have to choose another career and that I wasn’t going to be able to finish my career in printing. So I initially looked into x-ray, but when I saw that was going the same way as the printing industry, that it’s contracting and they’re using less and less of it, trying to limit the exposure, I started investigating other imaging modalities.  Ultrasound was the obvious choice because it’s growing so fast and there are so many different modalities within ultrasound. I just decided that I was going to make that work.

The moment when things clicked was at the open house here [WCUI], when they had the hands-on demonstration, and I got to hold the transducer and image someone’s carotid.  I didn’t know what I was doing but it put that idea into my head that I could learn this - that I can do it and it’s not impossible.  That was a defining moment.

2.  What have you accomplished in ultrasound that you are most proud of?

Graduating the Peds (Pediatric Cardiac Ultrasound and Congenital Heart Disease) program while working full time here. That was a pretty intense nine months, with no days off, being here seven days a week, and still being able to maintain perfect attendance and a straight A average through Peds.  It gave me a lot of confidence. But it was so fascinating and interesting, that I wasn’t going for the grades, it was the knowledge.  So that’s what I’m the most proud of.

3.  What obstacles did you have to overcome to get to where you are today in a position of success?

Retooling and picking a new career was a big one.  And keeping it together while being here at school.  I just came into it with a mindset that my first job in ultrasound was to get through ultrasound school, so I looked at it like a job, and put my time in, and took it seriously. I wasn’t here to play.

4.  Who are the role models in your life and how have they inspired you and helped you become successful? 

My dad.  I saw him struggle to gain control of his companies, and go almost two years without an income, but he still made sure we had shoes on our feet, and food on the table every night, and then when he did get control of his companies, he became very successful. But he was very generous with it towards his family.  He took really good care of us, and he’s always taken really good care of my mom.  I’ve always admired that. 

He also sent me into the ski club.  The deal with the ski club in high school was that you had to go on at least one trip, and I was kind of embarrassed to ask about it because I wasn’t aware of his finances at the time, I just knew we had been very poor for a couple years.  So when I asked to join the ski club, he said he thought it was a great idea because he was an avid skier.  I told him I had to go on at least one trip, and I gave him the list of all the trips for the year, and he sent me on every single trip, every year I was in the ski club, for three years.  I skied in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming…so that was awesome.

5.  Tell me about some of memorable patients that you have scanned/cared for.

All the kids. I really like working with kids.  Just trying to gain their trust in a short amount of time.  Children are very trusting, and I’m always goofing with them, always playing with them.  I like to put the gel on the transducer and tell them to open wide and say “Ahhh” and they do it.  When you see them over and over and you build a rapport with them.  They’re there at the doctor’s office not because they’re feeling well, but when they see you and they light up because they like you, that’s just awesome.  That’s the best part.

6.  What advice would you give a student who is just starting out in ultrasound school?

Take it seriously. Look at it like this is your first job in ultrasound. When you come to school here, you’re not buying a degree, you’re paying for the opportunity to earn it. If you take it seriously and do as the instructors tell you – they all want you to succeed, but they’re not going to spoon feed you. You’re going to have to do the work. Be prepared to do the work, and not just at school, you have to study outside of school. You have to spend an hour or two every single day, weekends included. Make it a commitment; this is your career for the rest of your life, and the opportunity to live a very comfortable life.

7.  What do you like to do when you aren’t working?

I love spending time with my kids. I love the ocean. I love bodysurfing, bodyboarding, and riding dirtbikes.  Anything outdoors – camping, hiking, fishing…I love it.

8.  What is one of your favorite memories from your time here at WCUI?

I have so many, that’s difficult. As a student, I had relationships with all the instructors.  You get to know them a little bit, but it’s in a different capacity. I really respected and admired all of the instructors because they all had so much knowledge and experience in the field, and they were also encouraging and positive.  But getting to know them personally, as coworkers, where they let down their guard a little bit, and there isn’t that student/instructor interface, it’s on a more personal basis.  My best memory is getting to know everyone personally - it makes a difference.  It was cool.

9.  How would your past instructors or coworkers describe you? 

The ones that got to know me…probably “crazy.” I like to have fun. I like to make jokes about things.  Hopefully, they remember me laughing, or making them laugh.

10.  What is something unique about you or your situation?

My older brother was mentally handicapped. Growing up, I was around handicapped kids and adults a lot. I think that kind of shaped my personality a little bit, and it really helps with patient care.  I’m not thrown off by that. There are a lot of handicapped people with congenital heart disease, and it doesn’t bother me at all.  I can usually get a good rapport going with them. I think if you can open your mind and your heart that way to them, your patient care abilities are going to be up there because you’re compassionate and understanding and patient.

11.  What is one of the hardest things about your job/externship?

Scanning children that are terminally ill. That’s pretty sad with their families there. I try and remain positive, greet them with a smile, and explain what I’m doing.  Afterwards, when you think about it, it’s pretty difficult. But again we’re just trying to help in this capacity.  We’re not hurting them, we’re not causing them any discomfort really, and you try and make it a positive experience. But that’s probably the hardest part.

12.   What goals do you have for yourself in the field of ultrasound?

I want to get my pediatric scanning up to the level of the masters that I’ve worked with.  Karen Ambrowitz is phenomenal.  A lot of the lab instructors that we had through the program are great scanners.  I want to get up to that level and then hopefully one day I can maybe get back into management of ultrasound, because I have twelve years of management experience. To multitask and stuff like that – I love being in the middle of it and kind of orchestrating a little bit and organizing, trying to cover bases and making sure that everything gets done. So I’m hoping that someday that will be where I end up.  But first I want to get to the level where I can drop in at anytime and show someone and teach someone how  to do it. I’d love to be at the level of some of the instructors that I had here.  They were phenomenal. 

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