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VA Nurse uses Air Force training, medical background to render first aid to critically injured motorcyclist

VA Nurse
Quick Thinking Nurse: Stephanie Kelnhofer, MSN, RN, MH-BC, stands in a hallway of the Omaha VA Medical Center’s Mental Health Clinic where she serves as a mental health case manager. On May 8, the U.S. Air Force Veteran rendered first aid to a critically injured motorcyclist. (VA NWIHCS photo by Kevin Hynes)

OMAHA, Neb. – Wednesday, May 8, was ending pretty much like every other day for Stephanie Kelnhofer, a registered nurse who works as a mental health case manager at the Omaha VA Medical Center: In traffic and in a rush.

“I left work a little later than normal,” said Kelnhofer, MSN, RN, MH-B C, who has worked at the Omaha VAMC since 2020. “I was kind of frazzled because I have to drive to Council Bluffs, get my daughter and then drive back into Omaha for her dress fitting.”

With rush hour traffic piling up, Kelnhofer was roughly about five minutes away from the VA medical center when suddenly, just a few cars ahead, she saw something that would make her quickly forget about her hectic schedule.

“I’m coming around this turn and just about to get onto the interstate and then there’s this person in the air,” she said. “I was kind of shocked.”

Suddenly, time began to blur. Kelnhofer remembers pulling to the side of the road, turning on her hazard lights, and then rushing toward a crowd that was already gathering around a man lying on the roadway. Kelnhofer quickly realized the man needed immediate medical attention.

And that’s when the U.S. Air Force Veteran’s past training, nursing experience, and a family tradition of helping others clicked into gear. 


Following in her grandmother’s footsteps

For as long as she can remember, Stephanie Kelnhofer wanted to be a nurse, just like her grandmother Kathy.

“My grandmother was like my second mom growing up,” said Kelnhofer, a native of Council Bluffs, Iowa. “My mom was a single mother and (my grandmother) was a nurse at Methodist Hospital. And you know, when you’re a little girl and they always ask you what you want to do when you grow up. I always said that I was going to be like grandma and be a nurse.”

This goal wasn’t about just being a nurse, Kelnhofer said. It was about following a legacy of service to others that her grandparents had instilled in their children and grandchildren from an early age. 

“Everyone knew my grandparents,” she said. “And Kathy would give you the shirt off her back. (I wanted to) be like her.”

Life, however, often takes a meandering route from a person’s childhood goals to one’s ultimate destination. And Stephanie Kelnhofer’s journey was no different. 

Shortly after graduating high school, Kelnhofer enlisted into the U.S. Air Force. She said the decision was one of the best she ever made. “(I was) being a naughty teenager,” she recalled. “I was 18 and I was not ready to go to college.”

Instead, Kelnhofer said, she was beginning to make wrong decisions, choices that threated to derail her from achieving her goals. “Quite honestly, if I had stayed at home, life probably would’ve been a lot different than it is now.”

After joining the Air Force and graduating initial training school, Kelnhofer was assigned to Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, as a fuel systems specialist on F-117 and F-22 jet fighters. Kelnhofer said the experience of being in the Air Force, of being completely on her own, and the responsibilities she had, helped her mature and learn important skills.

“Discipline,” she said. “It took me out of the environment I was in… and gave me all of these different life experiences.”

Experiences like her first airplane flight, self-reliance and working as part of a team. It gave her chances to take various military training courses, including the mandatory self-aid and buddy care classes that focused on giving Airmen critical lessons in performing emergency first aid on themselves and others.

Kelnhofer remained in the Air Force from 2008-13. When she returned to Council Bluffs, she was a soon-to-be-divorced, single mother of two young children. Her first job, post-Air Force, was as a front desk scheduler at a local hospital in Omaha.

About six months later, after feeling some dissatisfaction with her life situation, Kelnhofer made another significant decision during a shopping trip with her kids at, of all things, a local department store.

“I came back to my mom’s house and said, ‘I’m starting nursing school,” Kelnhofer recalled. “She was like, ‘I thought you just went shopping.’” 

‘“I did, but I just decided,’” she recalled answering. “I’m going to nursing school and I am going to finish what I started.”


Joining the nursing profession

Kelnhofer enrolled into the College of Saint Mary’s Nursing program in late 2014. Classes, as they usually did, came easily for Kelnhofer. Caring for two young children and balancing all the other responsibilities of life, were less so.

“It was hard,” she said. “All of the other things that came with school were challenging.”

Yet, through each difficult challenge, Kelnhofer said she felt the presence of her grandmother, who had died unexpectedly several years earlier, just weeks after the birth of her first child.

“I truly believe that grandma was always in my corner,” she said. “It helped me with my drive. I had made this promise to her, and I had promised myself, that I had to create a better life for my kids.”

Finally, after years of studying and balancing, Kelnhofer graduated as a nurse in 2018. “It was surreal,” she said about her graduation day. 

Kelnhofer’s first job as a nurse was at a local Council Bluffs hospital where she worked on the inpatient mental health unit, while also filling in on other roles. She also continued her educational work, soon earning her master’s degree. 

Kelnhofer soon realized her work wasn’t as fulfilling as she had hoped. She missed the sense of purpose she had found in the military. She missed being around fellow Veterans. So, she started looking into possible new job opportunities.

“I knew I wanted to work in the VA,” she said, adding that she hadn’t realized that there was a VA medical center just across the Missouri River in Omaha. And then one day, while looking at various job site, she stumbled across an advertisement for a position within the Mental Health Department at the Omaha VAMC.

“I had just finished my master’s degree and I was like, what do I have to lose,” she said. “So, I applied and interviewed for the position.”

“This was all during COVID, so the interview was online. I remember my son crawling around in the background during and thinking, well this isn’t going well,” she said. 

A short time later, Kelnhofer received a phone call from the VA hiring manager who told her that she had not been selected for the position. “My heart just sank,” she said. The hiring manager had other news, though. There was another position open within the unit for a mental health case manager. Would she be interested in that?

“I said, ‘Alright, tell me more about it,’” she said. After learning more about the position, Kelnhofer realized she was interested. “It was like what I was doing at the hospital already, but with mental health patients.”

Kelnhofer applied and was soon hired as a member of VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System’s mental health staff.

“Mental health is where my jam is,” she said, adding that she’s always had a desire to help people. “You never know if you are going to be the person who could change somebody’s life. So, I wanted to be able to be part of that change for someone else. I feel like you’re doing that here.”

“Some days are harder than others, but… working in an outpatient setting, we get to see people on their worst days and on their best days. You see the change,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m doing what I am supposed to do.”


Lifesaving Moment

Like many working mothers Kelnhofer’s days are often extremely busy, working constantly to balance the needs of her patients, the responsibilities of work, and taking care of her family. 

Wednesday, May 8, was no different. 

Work had been hectic that day, leading Kelnhofer to work longer than normal, putting her need to get back to Council Bluffs to pick up her daughter for her afternoon appointment all the more pressing. As she left the hospital parking lot, Kelnhofer was already making the mental calculations on how much time she had available before she would be late.

And then the accident occurred, pushing all those other concerns out of her mind. Her focus was now on saving a life.

“That’s just what I was supposed to do,” she said, recalling an important message she had learned from both her grandma and during her time in the Air Force. “You don’t ever leave someone behind.”

Rushing toward the accident, Kelnhofer said the first thing she noticed was the tremendous amount of blood already pouring from the victim’s wounded leg.

“I remember thinking in my mind, ‘Oh my God, he’s bleeding everywhere, and I don’t have any gloves,’” she said. “I don’t know if I said that out loud, but there was another gentleman who said he had some in his car. So, he went off and got these gloves.”

“I was taking my jacket off because you could tell that he had a severe leg injury and I was going to use my jacket as a tourniquet,” Kelnhofer said. When one of the other bystanders asked what she was doing, she explained that she needed to stop the bleeding and that she was going to use her jacket because that is all that she had with her. “He was like, ‘Why don’t you use my belt?’”

Utilizing the self-aid and buddy care training that she had received in the Air Force, along with her knowledge as a nurse, Kelnhofer quickly positioned the improvised tourniquet above the wound and began tightening the belt to stop the profusion of blood.

Kelnhofer said even though the blood flow was stopped, the victim was in obvious distress, thrashing in pain. “I remember as I was tightening the belt wondering if I had told anyone to call 911,” she said. “It felt like forever before the ambulance finally arrived.”

Once the ambulance crew arrived, Kelnhofer was relieved of her duties. That’s when the bystanders began telling arriving police officers about the work that Kelnhofer had just rendered.

“(The police officer) asked, ‘Who helped? Who put the tourniquet on?’ I wasn’t going to say anything because I don’t like being the center of attention,” she said. “Then one of the gentlemen that came at the same time said, ‘That little girl over there did. She came in here and took control over the entire scene.’”

The police officer then approached Kelnhofer and said, “You may have saved his life.”


“Just doing what nurses are supposed to do’

Later, Kelnhofer texted her coworkers about what had just occurred, starting her message simply: “Dude… I just saw the craziest moment…” 

Kim Rasmussen, a fellow RN case manager who often has the same commute home most nights, was amazed. “The very first thing I thought of was, oh my gosh, had I left work on time I would have been there right with her. We drive the same route,” said Rasmussen. “I literally got goose bumps as she shared the story with me, but I was not a bit surprised that she jumped into action.”

“She is not only a nurse, but a Veteran as well,” Rasmussen said. “She is fierce. She is definitely a person you want on your side because she will go to ‘battle’ for you. She is like that with the Veterans she cares for as well.”

Kelnhofer said she also called her mother that evening to talk through the feelings she was experiencing once the adrenaline of the moment began to subside. “My mom works in the medical field as well, so I feel like she’s kind of my sounding board when I feel like things are a little more intense than normal,” she said. “We just talked about it. I remember telling my mom that I wished that… like I’m never going to know if this guy made it or not. You’re always going to wonder.”

“She was like, ‘Well, Stephanie, that’s all part of being a nurse. You know, you do what you do and then the patient moves on, and you move on to the next patient,’” Kelnhofer said.

Ultimately, Kelnhofer said, the care she provided on that fateful afternoon was no different than what any other nurse in a similar situation would’ve done. 

“I was doing what a nurse is supposed to do,” Kelnhofer said.

Still, the fact that Kelnhofer did exactly as was trained to do, speaks volumes about her commitment to her profession and the people she serves, said Rasmussen. “Stephanie doesn’t like to be put into the spotlight, but I felt that her heroic actions needed to be shared,” she said. “It proves that a nurse’s job is never done.”

“Stephanie is so giving and is always helping others, not only at work but also in her personal life as well,” Rasmussen said. She added that multiple members of the VA staff reached out to Kelnhofer following the accident to offer her any support she might need. “You see, we are not only colleagues here at in the Mental Health Clinic, but we are a family that takes care of one another.”

When Kelnhofer was a child, she often thought about the work that her grandmother was doing as a nurse, the people that she was helping, and the legacy that she was leaving behind for her children and grandchildren to follow. She would often think, she said, about how she hoped she would also be able to leave a legacy that her future generations would want to follow as well.

Following the events of May 8, 2024, Kelnhofer said she felt her grandmother’s presence. She also added, “I hope I am making her proud.”