Nicholas Villarreal, DNP at University of Minnesota Physicians (M Physicians), has dedicated his career to caring for critically ill patients. As a young nurse, he discovered that working in critical care fulfilled his desire to provide a caring, empathetic environment for patients while learning more about medicine and the human body. The further he got in his career, the more Villarreal found that he valued having independence in his work.

“At the time, I was a nurse in a cardiovascular ICU,” Villarreal recalls. “We had a lot of autonomy in that, and I got to manage patients that were very sick and had mechanical support.”

Seeing Villarreal’s confidence, competence and passion for his work, a coworker gave him a push that changed the course of his career.

“One day, one of the nurse practitioners on our ICU team was coding a patient with me, and she looked over at me and said, ‘Why haven’t you applied to NP school yet?’” Villarreal laughs. “And I looked at her and said, ‘I don’t know, I think I’ll do that!’”

Nurse practitioners (NPs) are nurses with advanced training in the form of either a master’s or doctoral degree. NPs function similarly to physicians in that they are able to diagnose, prescribe medications and treat medical conditions. In the state of Minnesota, NPs can practice independently.

“We are an extension of the medical team and allow the medical team to provide more care to more patients,” Villarreal explains. “We provide safe and equivalent care to patients as they would get from a physician.”

Deanna Sellers, APRN and PA Manager at M Physicians, says NPs play a vital role in patient care.

“Nurse practitioners, and all our Advanced Practice Providers, are an essential part of how M Physicians serves patients seven days a week, 365 days a year. We play a critical part in our patients’ medical management throughout both the life span and the acuity of illness continuums,” she says.

Today, Villarreal is one of four NPs managing patients in the neurocritical care unit.

“We manage conditions like stroke, brain hemorrhages, brain tumors, status epilepticus, nerve conditions and spinal cord disorders,” Villarreal states. “We bridge the gap between the neurological conditions and the rest of the body.”

On this unit, Villarreal and his coworkers provide critical care procedures, manage patients and teach residents.

Villarreal says M Physicians gives him more learning opportunities than anywhere else he’s worked.

“I’ve had an opportunity to learn. I’ve learned so much more in the last eight months at M Physicians than I think I did in the prior four and half years as an NP. And I’ve had an opportunity to grow, and I feel very welcomed as a whole human,” he says. “I’m in an academic environment, so it feels more conducive to the way I think.”

Sellers agrees, saying health care is moving away from physician-centric care to a team model that provides the best environment for both professionals and patients.

“NPs get to take the best parts of nursing, plus advanced knowledge of pathophysiology and pharmacology and bring it together with greater autonomy to serve patients,” Sellers explains. “M Physicians is a great place to continue our work as change agents. More than ever, we cannot care for patients in the manner they deserve with any of our professional partners missing. This inevitable elevation in the team dynamic has brought us to an exciting new delivery model that is great to be a part of.”