As I enter the operating room to shadow registered nurse Dawn Meyer, feelings of excitement and terror run through my body in anticipation. Will I see blood and guts? Will I be able to stand what I see? But when I greet Meyer in the operating room, she quickly soothes my fears with her professional and controlled demeanor.
At 7 a.m., while many of us are just crawling out of bed or driving in to work, Meyer is already starting her work day as an OR nurse at UTMB. And today she will be on her feet for 10 hours, as she cares for the sick and wounded.
Her work day begins by checking what surgery she is assigned to and then prepping the OR. She works with the surgical technologist to gather the necessary supplies for the procedure: scalpels, sponges, needles, clamps, retractors.
By 7:15 a.m. her attention turns to the patient that we will call Jean. “I serve as the patient’s advocate during the surgery,” said Meyer.
She greets Jean as they are in the holding room, awaiting surgery. She asks Jean preliminary questions to ensure the right surgery is being performed on the right patient. Meyer also uses this time to try to soothe any anxiety Jean has about the surgery.
Meyer wheels Jean into the OR. The anesthesia kicks in. She smiles and holds Jean’s hand as she quickly drifts off to sleep.
Meyer has been at UTMB for 11 years with five years as a surgery technologist and six years as a registered nurse. “I like UTMB because it is a teaching hospital and I’m constantly learning something new,” she said. “Plus a lot of rare procedures come here.”
Today she will be assisting the surgical team with Jean’s heart bypass surgery with an aortic valve replacement, using a pig’s valve. The surgery will take six to eight hours and Meyer will be by her side the entire time.
Before the procedure begins, the surgery team takes a “time out” to ensure everything is in place. They count all surgical instruments and equipment. “It’s my job to prep the patient for surgery once we’re in the OR,” said Meyer. She inserts the patient’s catheter and preps her body with a bedatine solution to prevent post-surgical site infection.
It is also her job to make sure the operating room stays free of harmful organisms. She will constantly watch the team, to make sure the surgical instruments are touched only with protective gloves. If an instrument is ever compromised, it is her job to alert the team and immediately remove the instrument. She’ll also watch for masks and hair bonnets that may have come undone.
By 8:30 a.m., the surgery begins and a team of surgeons, anesthesiologists, surgery technologists and perfusionists, all led by the cardiothoracic surgeon, begin their work.
They work in harmony together like an orchestra. With each playing their own tune on a different instrument, as they collectively create a joyous melody. As the patient’s advocate, Meyer keeps a watchful eye throughout the surgery to make sure everyone stays in tempo.
The surgical technologist asks Meyer to tighten her mask because it is loosening. Meyer responds quickly. These small duties play a large part in keeping the patient free from post-surgical complications.
Throughout the procedure, Meyer assists the surgeon and surgical technician with any instruments they need and collects and bags bodily tissues. “This is the patient’s old heart valve,” she says as she shows me two inches of tissue floating in a jar.
At times the room becomes intense when the patient’s blood pressure begins to drop. Voices escalate and the team moves into action. Through it all Meyer remains calm under pressure as she attends to their needs.
Jean’s surgery ends at 2:15 p.m., but Meyer’s work continues. Once the surgery ends, Meyer begins clearing the room of equipment and supplies and begins setting it up for the next day. Her day ends at 5 p.m.
Meyer states that one of the biggest misconceptions people have about her job is, that it’s all blood and guts and gross.
“But, helping someone have their heart work better isn’t gross to me,” said Meyer. For her, the blood and guts is a part of a healing process that she’s proud to be a part of.
I confess to Meyer that I had the same fear initially. However, I quickly realized, by her hands, that the OR is a controlled, professional environment where miracles take place.
And that’s a day in the life of an OR nurse. Well done, Meyer, well done.