Why our surgical teams aren’t like what you see on TV
Surgical nurses Janet Divelbiss and Kate McLaughlin share why working in an operating room is thrilling and powerful. And why it deserves respect.
We’ve all seen the medical drama episode where the rockstar surgeon enters the operating room (OR) and immediately starts barking orders at their colleagues.
At UI Hospitals & Clinics, that’s not the scene that plays out in our operating rooms.
“I never feel as though I'm beneath our surgeons,” says Kate McLaughlin, MSN, RN, a surgical nurse. “I'm treated like a colleague, a partner, and a team member. Everyone cares so much about our surgery patients. We’re very protective of them.”
Janet Divelbiss, BSN, RN, CNOR, who’s been a surgical nurse for almost four decades, agrees that medical dramas often get it wrong when it comes to surgery. She adds that surgical nurses are still able to advocate for their patients, just in a different way.
"From the moment we greet the patient to the various safety checks we do, to working with the surgeons, we’re looking out for the patient and their well-being,” Divelbiss says.
The women talk about their work with a sense of wonder. Both Divelbiss and McLaughlin serve as part of the team that performs cardio, thoracic, and vascular surgeries.
“Sometimes you're replacing someone's major blood vessel or taking out a piece of their lung. Maybe you’re replacing all their lungs with a transplant,” McLaughlin says. “The first time you see those lungs inflate or you see a heart start beating is just incredible.”
Both believe that it’s the nurses' job to know a procedure forward and backwards.
“For instance, we have to know when we're putting somebody on bypass that the surgeon starts with an aortic stitch, then they do a venous stitch, then you need to know what's involved with each individual step to support the operation as a whole,” Divelbiss says.
In particular, McLaughlin loves the challenge of learning a procedure forward and backwards, saying that things go smoothly when the scrub nurse, circulating nurse, and surgeon are in sync.
"The surgeon needs to focus on what they're doing and that comes when they’re confident in your abilities," she says. “A lot of times the best feeling is when you get into the groove of the surgery, no one's talking, and you're just handing them what they need and they're handing it back and you just go.”
Teamwork makes the impossible happen
Nurses generally have two roles in an OR. They may be the circulator, who runs the surgery’s various functions that are not occurring in the sterile filed at the surgical table. Their role includes charting, checking supplies and medications, and supporting the rest of the team.
The other role is that of a scrub nurse, who works alongside the surgeon. They maintain the flow of the surgery by passing instruments, assist in monitoring patient vitals, and other technical duties.
“I like working with my hands,” says McLaughlin. “Surgery is very hands on. Our patients come in with a problem and it's something we can try to fix in a physical way. I think in a lot of other types of medicine, there's a lot of dealing with medications and trying to see what works.”
The women agree that doing what seems impossible—whether it's replacing the lungs or repairing a heart—is strengthened by a compassionate, professional team.
“I think we could do a good job of supporting each other when things don't go the way we want them,” says Divelbiss. “We're all there and we really rally around each other.”
Although television gets a lot of things about surgery wrong, it’s often not far off when it comes to the friendships you form with those who stand by your side every day.
"Being able to depend on and get along with your team makes such a difference,” says McLaughlin. “I know that few people get to experience or really understand the type of work we do in the OR. But Janet does.”