For the past few years I’ve had the very distinct pleasure of working in operating rooms across the country. I’ve worked with some mighty fine folk and experienced many things I never imagined I would when I was a wee lass. The first building block of most any training starts with a didactic portion involving slideshows, book work, and such. The next block is the hands-on portion. This brings us to my very first real live in-person surgical case: an above the knee amputation. I usually reserve this story for first dates and family reunions, I’m an absolute pleasure to have ‘round for tea.
My very first day in the operating room, I show up spic and span with my classmates. Already the day is going awry; room assignments have been changed and several staff members have called in ill. This leaves me in an amputation that I’m completely unprepared for, actually scrubbing the case instead of shadowing someone more experienced. Obviously at this point I have no idea what I’m doing, and I’ve really carried that through into the rest of my life.
The patient is now asleep, and the surgeon makes the first cut- the tourniquet around the patient’s upper thigh is malfunctioning. The surgeon decides to power through to get the leg off as quickly as possible and come back to stop the bleeding later. At this point in my life I had barley even seen someone get stitches much less watched a leg cut off with power tools two feet from my face. The smell of flesh gone bad, bone being sawed through, and blood being cauterized all have very distinctive smells that are nearly impossible to prepare yourself for. In training, they had us use cautery on a piece of baloney, but it did next to nothing to mentally prepare me for this.
The surgeon and assistant have now completely removed the leg and practically throw it at me so that they can focuses on the patient who is spurting blood out of a half stump of thigh. Those few moments seemed to stretch out for an eternity; me, holding this entire leg that kept bending at the knee, still seeping blood onto my gown, and it felt as if it would never stop. Nobody told me what I was supposed to do with this leg, so I just fucking stood there like a dweeb. It’s amazing how light and small a leg is when it isn’t encumbered by the rest of the body.
At any rate, what seemed like hours later, the nurse brought a biohazard bag for me to drop the leg into and life continued. I relayed the drama of my day to a few friends later through a mix of hysteria, laughter, and tears. My young surgical tech self didn’t know how to process what the patient had gone through or how to feel about being exposed to this situation. Even today, it’s sort of like being tied up and tickled until you pee your pants, the situation has humor but it’s really, really not funny.
Years later and I’ve now done plenty of amputations, along with days crammed full of all the other surgeries you can imagine. It is absolutely integral for health care workers to always approach patients with kindness and respect. Every patient should be treated how you would want your own grandmother, daughter, or loved one to be treated. However, you must leave the things you can’t change at the time clock and not carry them home with you. If you don’t, you won’t survive.