The following is an excerpt of a feature story written by Jessica Downey with photographs by Robert Bruschini for Real Woman magazine’s winter 2016 issue. If you’re interested in reading more, visit realwomanonline.com where you can find digital editions or sign up for a free print subscription. Click here to read the entire article.
When we’re asleep in the operating room, the entire surgical team is working. But there’s a person in the room whose eyes are intently trained on us and whose job it is to advocate for us while we sleep. Is the room warm enough for us? Is everything properly hooked up and attached? Have we been in one position for too long? While everyone else in the room is working on our behalf, the operating room (OR) nurse is our eyes and ears.
Cut out for the OR
While many other nurses may want to shift disciplines, OR nurses often stay put. They crave the fast pace, the energy of each surgery, and the every-day-is-something-different mentality. Registered Nurse Stella Donnell, who has worked as a nurse for Capital Health for her entire 25-year career, is a case in point.
“I knew when I graduated from Trenton State [now The College of New Jersey] that I wanted to get into the OR. But at the time, nurses didn’t leave the operating room. When they went there, they stayed because people loved their jobs,” Donnell says. “So I started on the floor, but luckily for me a position opened up about seven months after I started. So I got in and I’ve been there ever since. And I love my job.”
Donnell says that when a new nurse starts, she can often tell if he or she is going to be a fit for the operating room over the long term.
“The OR is an incredible challenge, but it’s just not for everyone,” Donnell explains. “We have a new surgical tech here who is so excited, and you can see it on her face. You can just tell. Either someone has the personality and they are really into it, or they’re not.”
Before the surgery even begins, you can read on Registered Nurse Lauren Krosnick’s face that she’s exactly where she wants to be. Like Donnell, she knew from a young age that she wanted to be a nurse (she regularly helped her parents care for ill relatives who lived at her childhood home), and the OR presents a daily challenge that suits her.
“I love the challenge of the OR—the surgical aspects, learning the equipment and the instruments, and anticipating what comes next,” Krosnick says.
Being quick on your feet is certainly a requirement, Donnell says, but organization is key, a refrain she’s often reminding new surgical nurses.
“You have to know how to anticipate what’s coming,” she explains. “You have to be constantly forward-thinking so you can prepare for any scenario.”
Getting the surgical room sterilized and ready is a significant part of the job, but during surgery, it’s all about doing what needs to be done to help execute a successful surgery.
“You do everything from hooking up the instruments to scratching someone’s nose,” Donnell says. “Once the procedure is started, you’re kind of running around doing everything and charting when you get a minute.”
As the guardian of a patient’s physical and emotional state before and during surgery, an OR nurse must be a caretaker in the truest sense. This is especially the case for surgeries like mastectomies, in which a patient is in the throes of a battle with breast cancer and is about to face a body-altering surgery.
Capital Health has made a significant investment in its breast center, and Donnell is the team leader for plastics in the OR, which means she works on a lot of mastectomies and reconstructive surgeries.
“When the patient first comes into the operating room, I let her know that I’m there and I’m going to take care of her. I don’t like to be running around doing things. I’m there with her until she falls asleep,” she says. “You have to get all the business done, but in the end, it’s all about compassion. I want to be there holding her hand, keeping her warm, with my hands on her. It just makes her feel better because she is in this room with all these lights, and everyone else is multitasking.”
Seeing that transformation from the beginning of the surgery to the end is a part of the process Donnell still finds amazing. “For patients that come in knowing they have cancer and need to have a mastectomy, but are having immediate reconstruction and when they wake up they’re going to have breasts, to help them through that and have everything the doctor needs, it’s very rewarding,” Donnell says.