The Pulse | Friday, August 20, 2021
A Look at the Early Days of SGNA: An Interview With Marna Schirmer, SGNA Founder
Founded in 1970, SGNA has been a source of learning, knowledge sharing and — perhaps most importantly — community for GI nurses and associates.
But what were those early days like, when endoscopy was a fledgling practice and the association was just getting its footing, and how far have we come? We spoke with Marna Schirmer, founder of SGNA, to learn more.
Can you tell us what the GI landscape was like at that time? What led you to create SGNA?
Endoscopy was brand new; it wasn't done in every hospital. I was working at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York at the time, so most of the major hospitals there were doing it, but nobody had an endoscopy suite. You would not believe what the endoscopes looked like. They were as thick in diameter as a regular garden hose and about as easy to move. They flexed, but not a lot.
You didn't have video per se, but you could get attachments. We had a camera that weighed about three pounds and attached to the end of the endoscope. You had to hold it as you tried to maneuver it. The doctors had a lot on their hands.
Olympus had one sales rep for the country at the time. When I had questions, he could connect me to nurses across the country who might have answers. In a way, this is what helped start the idea for SGNA (then SGA). My boss at the time, Jerry Waye, was also helpful in making connections, as he was out speaking, often. I was able to get the name of a lot of doctors who were more than willing to give me the name of their assistants.
When SGNA was first formed, all of our mailings and newsletters were done by snail mail, hand-written or hand-typed and sent to a printer. We didn’t have personal computers then. Endoscopy was a brand new field and the need for this organization was apparent because we were all learning along the way.
What were some of the early days of SGNA like?
To give you an idea: We had a national meeting in San Antonio in the early ‘70s. Now, we knew nothing about hosting a regular meeting. We did not have SGNA staff or an organization that helps you set up an event, so we planned everything through the steering committee. Booking a hotel, what did we know about doing that?
We wanted to have a get-to-know-you party. When I checked to see what it would cost, we could afford wine and cheese. The hotel wouldn't let us take anything back in, so anything that was leftover from the party was on the tables the next morning for breakfast. We were flying by the seat of our pants for a couple of years, but we had a lot of fun.
When we had our first meeting in San Francisco, the fact that we had 90 people was amazing. We were given a room and Dr. H. Worth Boyce, who was the president of ASGE at that time, had the forethought to arrange a microphone for us so we could reach the end of the room. We went scrambling within the first 10 minutes that everyone made it into the room, because assistants from all over the country came in with slides and presentations. Luckily ASGE was very good to us and got some AV equipment that day so we could put on these presentations. It was clear SGNA was needed, otherwise we wouldn't have had that kind of interest to begin with.
Thinking back on your time with SGNA and in the field, what are some major milestones that stand out to you?
I retired as the field continued to evolve, but I recall the scopes had narrowed a bit, but very little. The video scopes had not come out yet, but basically there's something new every year. That doesn't change.
GI scopes brought more flexible scopes into the world. Bronchoscopes, Laryngoscopes, and laparoscopes all became more flexible. It was a new era in endoscopy.
The specialty of endoscopy has also evolved tremendously and become more focused over time. We’ve come such a long way. Before endoscopes, you had no way of seeing ulcers and biopsying them and other tissue. You had no way of recognizing — aside from learned experience — an early, cancerous ulcer versus something benign. Endoscopes made gastroenterology a much more popular field in this day and age.
What is one of your proudest moments in your career?
Founding SGNA and knowing that it's still there. It's been over 50 years now, that's old for a baby! And it was my baby back then. Also winning the Gabriele Schindler Award in 1986.
What is your advice for GI nurses and associates today, especially those new to the profession?
Get involved with your team and be open to learning at all times. When I started in GI, the doctors would ask if I wanted to “have a look” through the scope to see what they were talking about. Learning as I was doing had a huge impact on my career in GI.
SGNA as an organization offers so much to nurses that are involved in GI, and it's something that I highly recommend making the most of. You make some lifelong friends along the way. And by all means, volunteer for different positions. It's how you get to know others and how you can become more important to your own team.
SGNA members: Tune in to this episode of Gut to the Chase: An SGNA Podcast Series to hear more stories from Marna about the early days of SGNA. Be sure to login to access the episode.