Dr. Harley Pakola on His 30-Year Career as an Anesthesiologist with the Willmar Surgery Center

Published in Anesthesiology, Medical Professionals Tag: Harley Pakola, PhD,MD  

Author: Staff

From the time the first Willmar Surgery Center’s doors opened in December of 1986, Anesthesiologist, Dr. Harley Pakola, has been on the surgical team.

Now, 30 years later, the construction of the second-generation surgery center is underway. As Dr. Pakola prepares to transition to the new facility, he reflects on his career with ACMC and the surgical evolution he has experienced during his time in anesthesiology.

Although he loves his career in anesthesia, it wasn’t always the path that Dr. Pakola thought he would take into the operating room. After completing medical school at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX, Dr. Pakola began an internship at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. With aspirations to become a surgeon, he spent just one year in the general surgery residency before realizing that it wasn’t what he had imagined.

“I found that I just wanted to be in the operating arena all the time and I didn’t enjoy doing clinic rotations each day,” Dr. Pakola explained. It was then that he knew he had found his passion. “Whether it is an epidural or in the operating room, I enjoy being able to provide patients relief.”

When it came time to start his career, Dr. Pakola had a few key requirements for his future home. “I knew I wanted to practice rural medicine, we wanted our kids to attend a smaller school, and we wanted to live on a lake,” he recalled. “Willmar was able to provide all of those things.”

And he did just that. Dr. Pakola and his wife, Beth, raised three daughters and one son in the Willmar community and enjoyed family time on Green Lake.

As an anesthesiologist, Dr. Pakola is responsible for evaluating the patient and analyzing the drugs needed for each surgery. He then provides his recommendation to the nurse anesthetist, who administers while Dr. Pakola observes pre and post-surgery. “It’s like flying a plane,” Dr. Pakola explained. “You let the co-pilot fly throughout the length of the flight but the pilot is there for take-off and landing.” 

Dr. Pakola finds his job especially rewarding when working with expectant mothers during labor. “When a woman is in pain and I administer the epidural, they are extremely grateful. Many will look at their husbands and say, I love you, but I love him more right now,” he joked. “It’s great to see the immediate results that anesthesia can provide. It makes my job very rewarding.”

Dr. Pakola began his career with ACMC in 1986, working a rotating schedule between the ambulatory surgery center and Rice Memorial Hospital. At the time, most surgeries were performed in operating rooms at Rice Hospital. Now, as technology and medicine advance, many surgeries are done in the outpatient setting. This is one of the most dramatic shifts Dr. Pakola has seen during his career.

“When I began in surgery, you wouldn’t have dreamt of doing a gallbladder procedure in an outpatient surgical setting and now it’s routine,” he said. “Even cataract extractions were done in the hospital and patients had to lay on the bed with sandbags around their heads, lying motionless for 10 days. Now they come in and two hours later, they go home. It’s a radical change.”

These advancements have also been seen in the field of anesthesia, making the process not only less complicated but also safer for patients.  Dr. Pakola credits two major developments that changed the way anesthesiologists practice today: the pulse oximeter and the medication, Propofol.

A pulse oximeter detects changes in the blood oxygen level and ensures that the body is getting the oxygen it needs during surgery. “In the past, when we put a patient to sleep, the only indicator that a patient was in trouble was when their lips started to turn blue and often that was too late,” Dr. Pakola said. “The pulse oximeter allows us to intervene far before a patient is ever in trouble and our complication rate has plummeted dramatically.”

The introduction of the medication, Propofol, has also made the surgical process more pleasant for patients. The medicine is given to patients through an IV and helps relax them before and during anesthesia.  “As soon as you give it to a patient, they are off to sleep. When surgery is complete and the medication is stopped, Propofol rapidly metabolized and the patient is awake almost immediately,” Dr. Pakola explained. “The beauty of this medicine is that it allows patients to enter their deepest sleep and leaves them feeling refreshed following surgery.”

During his time at ACMC, he has also noticed a dramatic change in the patients who are coming through the operating room. “When I first came to Willmar, you could open the phone book and everyone’s name ended in “son”: Paulson, Johnson, Nelson. It was a very Scandinavian area,” Dr. Pakola said. “It’s amazing to see how a little town like this has transitioned.”

With the addition of more diverse cultures into the community, Dr. Pakola has noticed the variations in patient care that is required. “Some cultures are very stoic and tolerate pain well but not all can,” he explained. “As an anesthesiologist, it’s been an interesting observation and can change a patient’s induction plans greatly.”

With the evolution of the surgical profession throughout his career, Dr. Pakola is excited for the opportunities that await him and his team at the new Willmar surgery center that is scheduled to open in the summer of 2018. “I’ve been through all the changes and renovations at our current surgery center,” he said. “I am excited to see what the new one can provide.”