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From Healing to Packaging: The Journey of a Nurse Turned Med Device Packaging Pro

Vascular Dynamics' Amanda Ward Gessell started out as an RN and witnessed packaging and waste first-hand. She offers career tips, talks home renovation skills, and shares her grandmother's motto that she brings to packaging.

Amanda Ward Gessell, PMP, of Vascular Dynamics.
Amanda Ward Gessell, PMP, of Vascular Dynamics.

Welcome to Profiles in Healthcare Packaging! In our inaugural Q&A, we spoke with Amanda Ward Gessell, PMP, senior program manager at Vascular Dynamics.

Q: You have a unique journey. What brought you to packaging?

A: I fell into packaging by a series of life choices/coincidences.

My packaging journey started in high school, as I was admitted to Clemson University as a nursing student. I loved and excelled in science and math, and was always in the nurse’s office as a kid from injuries to asthma, so nursing was a logical choice.

They always said in nursing school, “You will find the area you love.” Well, after four years of school, I didn’t find my “area” or specialty. So instead of working as a nurse, I went to work for a small medical device startup. It was here that I experienced the receiving end of medical packaging.

When multiple devices’ sterility expired at once, the company lost thousands of dollars due to the expired products. It was a multiple-part kit, and the part with the shortest shelf-life was the tubing. I started asking questions. Why can’t you just replace the one expired part? Can you sterilize it? My contract with that company ended after one year and I moved back to SC to be closer to my (then boyfriend) now husband.  

So, while I was figuring out life, I went back to work as a home health nurse. Here, I realized how much stuff is required to take care of patients, especially medically fragile children. They receive their products in bulk for the month or quarter. Their homes were overwhelmed with stuff. I even saw families open every single syringe or tubing because otherwise they didn’t have the space. I saw G-tube feeding pumps being held closed with hair ties. Parents were saying to me, “I have a whole list of things I would love to see changed.”

So as I considered what was next, I reached out to my alma mater's packaging program, because surely I could help solve these seemingly simple problems. So three years after I finished nursing school, I was graciously offered a position in the Clemson Masters Packaging program under Dr. Scott Whiteside. Thus, my packaging career started. I have had the opportunity to develop medical films, to test food packaging, and to design medical device packaging. Ultimately, I found that I didn’t love being in the lab, but preferred to help organize and lead the group as a project manager.

Q: Tell us about a favorite work project, something you’re proud of, and a great work memory.

A: My favorite project/something I was proud of was managing the development of a medical device shipping container from VOC through global implementation. It was fun to see all of our customers’ needs come to fruition. It took about two years and was the first new product the company had launched in years.

For a funny work memory: We used to give a weekly update to our VP in an Excel sheet. I was convinced he never actually read them. One week we needed to test burst strength on two different films in pouch shapes, so I had my engineer jump on them to say which was weaker. Obviously, this was not the only test we performed, but I put something in the update like, “Eng performed the ‘official approved jumping in the hallway test’ to assess strength to determine sample A was stronger.” He definitely read all the updates each week. 

Q: Do you have a certain motto/spirit you bring to your work in packaging and life?

A: I stole this motto from my late grandmother. She would always say, “If you ain’t having a good time, it ain’t no one’s fault but your own.” She was from Baltimore City and was very poor most of her life. But she always had a smile on her face, was quick to laugh, and give out a great hug.

Now, as I manage very complex programs, stress and frustration are part of the job. I try and remember her saying and then have a quick laugh at myself. Meetings can be stressful. Projects are going to hit bumps in the road. Designs fail. But your attitude during the harder times can make everything worse or better! If you really don’t like what you are doing, then make the change. Life is too short!  

Q: What keeps you going when facing burnout, competing priorities, or time constraints?

A: Burnout, competing priorities, and time constraints are project management 101. But 99% of the above come from poor communication. I have found that it is rare to have true competing priorities at the same time. There is usually a buffer or leeway in deliverables. You can have a lot to do, but communication and planning really mitigate conflicts. 

A good project manager can plan for these risks in advance so those “fire drills” don’t happen. Now, there are always times you’re going to need to work late or extra to get a job done. That is expected, but if you’re always up against a clock, that isn’t normal!  

On burnout: use your vacations! I see so many people not using their vacation time. I have also found working from home is a gamechanger for me as I can plan around my family and my needs. In nursing we learned the metaphor of a pitcher of water. As a nurse, you are always pouring your water over others. Eventually, your pitcher will be empty, and it is your job to make sure you refill it.

Q: What are your favorite hobbies, causes, or interests outside of work? 

A: I have small kids, so as cliché as it sounds, my life is their school and sports. So, when I do have time(!) I have really begun to love reading—I try to read a little bit every day. We just took up skiing this year… and at almost 40, I’m proud of how much we have learned this year! Gessell takes down a wall in her house. That drywall never stood a chance.Gessell takes down a wall in her house. That drywall never stood a chance.

My husband and I also buy fixer-upper homes, so I love to plan out what to do with our homes. In our current home, I redesigned the whole 1st floor kitchen and living room, requiring us to knock down five walls and lower floors. I’ve done pantries, bathrooms, bedrooms, closets, laid hardwood floors, painted, designed patios, fixed exterior walls, rewired houses, laid tile, etc. I love taking a space and making it useful but not overdone. I guess, I just like to stay busy, learn new things, and enjoy life! 

Q: Do you have tips for early career professionals or for folks who are considering a career shift into packaging from another role?

For early career professionals: stay late and learn as much as you can and execute. Never lose your hustle and hunger.

Everyone needs Toastmasters. Learning public speaking is critical to good communication. I cannot recommend this program enough to any career professional.

If you plan to shift into packaging, and can’t go back to get a packaging degree, I would seek out a two to three day course as a first step. I am involved in the MDPTC course [Fundamentals of Medical Device Packaging] and it’s in line with what I learned in school. It’s a great overview.

If your company is in the packaging space, identify something you want to learn more about. Extrusion? Packaging design? Branding? Testing? Competitive intelligence? Other concepts? Work with your manager to get this into your yearly development plan. Then find a mentor in that new area. See if they have a small project you can take on to learn more.

As an example, if you want to learn about testing, ask to volunteer in the lab for the next big project. Want to learn about the competitive landscape? Ask if you can put together something on a key competitor. Want to project manage? Offer to take and type up meeting minutes. There are always small things you can do to learn skills. HCP

Know someone with a unique packaging journey? Experience to share? Nominate them with subject line “HCP Profiles” at [email protected]

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