Matt Gasper takes challenges, successes in stride

May 12, 2019

In nursing school, Matt Gasper’s Plan B was becoming a plumber.

That never came to fruition, because his Plan A worked out just fine. But in his 19 years as a nurse with Mayo Clinic and now Gundersen Health System in La Crosse, Gasper has learned that the two careers have a surprising number of similarities.

“If you think about it, the heart is a pump. You have all these pipes. And there’s electrical activity happening in there,” said Gapser, a nurse in Gundersen’s surgical ICU. “I don’t think I could ever have become a plumber or an electrician, but I kind of am right now.”

Gasper begins each shift by getting the lay of the land. Nurses from the previous shift give him status reports on each patient, rattling off numbers and phrases that only medical professionals could make sense of.

That’s where the comparisons with plumbing end, because nurses hold the lives of patients in their hands. Gasper works with patients who are at their most vulnerable, who are coming in or out of major surgeries.

“Oftentimes,” he said, “I’m kind of left wondering what’s not challenging about the job.”

But being a nurse, especially in a high-pressure ICU, also brings high rewards.

There are instant payoffs, like tweaking a patient’s medication and seeing them change before your eyes, as well as long-term ones.

Gasper remembers one man who was emaciated from heart and lung failure, and who eventually got transplants. As the man recovered over weeks and months, Gasper got to know him not only as a patient, but as a person.

“We got along great and had a lot of laughs despite the tough times,” Gasper said. “I had never had that happen,” spending so much time with a patient, seeing the long arc of recovery.

Then, suddenly, the patient was gone.

Gasper learned that he had been released, and he often wondered how his friend was doing, if he was staying on track.

“One day, this person comes back into the hospital and wraps their arms around me. I don’t know who they are,” Gasper said. “It kind of comes back to me, and the person says their name. They didn’t look anything like the person I remembered. They looked healthy and strong and vibrant again. That’s one of the best moments I’ve experienced.”

Each case and each patient is a little different from anything Gasper has seen before, he said, so the job still feels fresh two decades in.

He’s also driven by discipline, by his dedication to the task at hand — something he credits largely to his time as a corpsman in the military.

Boot camp solidified his work ethic, and mock trauma situations taught him to be cool and collected under pressure. They’d bring in people with all kinds of fake injuries and ailments, and the corpsmen would have to take it all in stride.

“It kind of worked like a machine: These are the things that need to happen, and this is the order in which it needs to occur,” he said. “Now, getting to experience it in real life, it’s been pretty eye-opening.”

While the military instilled discipline, it did not turn Gasper stern or emotionless — to the contrary. There are times when he cries with patients, when he reflects on the impact nurses have on the people around them.

“I’m taking care of teachers and my friends’ family members,” he said. “I really get to change people’s lives in a way I never really thought about.”