Surgery, day #1: attitude adjustment

by Lorien E. Menhennett

We weren’t wearing the appropriate maroon scrubs when we went to the OR to practice how to scrub in for surgeries. So we had to don the infamous blue “bunny suit.” These disposable, zip-up onesies are only stocked in XL, so most of us looked completely ludicrous. I felt it was important to capture the ridiculosity of the moment. My friend, who had kept her iPhone handy, was kind enough to oblige.

Around the country, the medical school surgery rotation has a reputation for being one of the toughest and most grueling. The hours are long, the breaks are few, and the expectations are high.

So it was with more than a little trepidation that I approached the first day of my surgery clerkship yesterday. But after yesterday, I find myself with a changed attitude. The hours won’t be any shorter, but our day of orientation got me excited about what I’ll be seeing and learning over the next 8 weeks.

Our orientation included the obligatory lecture sessions about clerkship logistics, leadership, grading, safety, all that. But after those things were out of the way, we got to do stuff. Fun stuff.

Our orientation was held in Weill Cornell’s Skills Acquisition and Innovation Laboratory (SAIL for short). It’s a suite of rooms in the hospital designed to help surgeons, surgical residents, and medical students practice their surgical skills. And while as medical students, we obviously won’t be performing the operations, we will be assisting in some ways. Depending on the trust earned with our residents and attendings, we may be asked to do things such as insert the foley catheter (for urine), retract, hold the camera during laparoscopy, suture, and tie knots. Retracting is pretty self-explanatory, but everything else requires some knowledge.

So yesterday, we practiced. We used actual foley catheter kits (the same kind that we will see in the operating room) on both male and female mannequins. Urine passage is obviously pretty different depending on the gender, and getting a tube up there is also a little different. While inserting the foley, we worked to maintain sterile technique to reduce the risk of infection. There were also workshops on knot tying (so many knots to learn!) and suturing (so many ways to suture!). The most high-tech workshop was for laparoscopy, also known as minimally invasive surgery. That’s where they make tiny incisions and insert a camera and other instruments rather than open up the abdomen (or other part of the body) with a long incision. There were several stations to practice our hand-eye coordination. It was a lot like playing a video game. At each station, you looked up at a screen (same as you’d do during a laparoscopic procedure) while holding the camera and/or instruments with your hands. Then you had to manipulate objects with your instruments, passing tiny blocks from one hand to the other, dropping beans into a tiny hole, or untangling rope (to simulate loops of bowel), for example. These stations actually replicate an exam that surgical residents have to pass in order to graduate. After doing a few stations, I have a new respect for this kind of surgery. I did notice improvement after a few go-rounds though, so I see how these practice stations are a huge help to surgeons.

Late afternoon, we headed to the OR for a brief tutorial on scrubbing, gowning, and gloving. Since I completed my ob/gyn rotation, I’d already learned these skills, though it was a good refresher.

At the end of the day, I’d recalibrated my attitude. And I’d formulated my goals for the clerkship. I want to perform well, of course — that goes without saying. That overarching goal encompasses lots of little goals, including studying for the shelf exam, reading up on patients, being a helpful student, working hard on my patient presentations, and so on. But I also want to leave surgery with a better grasp on some of these surgical skills, particularly suturing and knot tying. We were told yesterday that it takes (literally) thousands of hours to really learn how to suture and tie knots. I don’t have thousands of hours to practice. But I also don’t need to perfect my skills to the level of a surgeon. I do, however, want to feel more comfortable doing those things, because they’re useful across the practice of medicine. So I talked at length with the doctor who runs SAIL, which is open 24/7 for us to come in and practice. I’ve now got some sutures, gloves, and other paraphernalia at home to practice with. And he told me to come back in a week or so to show him my progress. He’ll help me if I’m struggling with anything or if I’m doing something incorrectly — both of which are very likely. I know that this kind of hands-on tutoring is invaluable when learning a new skill. I’m so grateful for the help.

Along with being a writer and medical student, I’m also an artist and former pianist. I love using my hands, and know the importance of building muscle memory. So I see this as a fun (and practical) challenge.

I love a good challenge. I’m in medical school, after all.

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