Nursing perspective: Life as an OR nurse

My message to nurses considering the operating room is, “Come join us.”

This story was published in the Winter 2023 issue of The Washington Nurse.

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I’ve worked at the UW Medical Center since 1985; most of that has been as an operating room nurse. That’s 37 years, and I’m still enjoying it.

Operating room nursing is for people who like working as a team, enjoy ritual, and like lots of detail, but overall, love to come to work to make a huge difference in their patient’s lives by mending a broken leg, removing a deadly cancer, repairing a failing heart, and much, much more.

At UWMC, we have the added privilege of seeing and using the newest technology; we care for extremely ill patients coming from the WAMI region (Washington, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho), and we have the resources to do amazing things.

Every operating room requires two people to staff it: a registered nurse to circulate and another staff member to pass the instruments, sutures, and whatever is needed by the surgeon for the procedure. This person can be a nurse or a scrub technician. The registered nurse in circulation is basically in charge of the room, obtaining supplies for the surgical and anesthesia teams, fielding phone calls to multiple places (pathology, radiology, lab, recovery room, central supply, the charge nurse, updating family members). The list goes on and on. The nurse watches the surgical field to make sure there is no break in sterility, passes needed equipment up to the field, delivers drugs, opens supplies and implants, and so on.

Qualities that thriving OR nurses have include the ability to multitask, the ability to think fast on their feet, good hand-eye coordination, good organizational skills, and the ability to coordinate multiple disciplines in order to carry out all the components of a complex procedure.

Each day is different; each day is rewarding and sometimes even magical. When a large multidisciplinary group pulls together to perform a long, complex, unique procedure that gives someone an extended and better quality of life, it’s an awesome experience.

When I first began working in the OR, I wanted to be where the action was, so I learned to “scrub” the big ortho cases, such as total hips, total knees, and the big sarcoma cases. From there, I moved to cardiac surgery and was able to witness the first heart transplant in our region. I later became part of the liver donor procurement team and had a very interesting two years traveling to various hospitals as far as Alaska and Montana procuring organs for transplantation. This was fun, exciting, and rewarding.

I took a small detour and worked for the anesthesia department as their quality improvement coordinator. Then I went back to school at UW to obtain my master’s in health administration. I worked in risk management and later for the medical director.

After a large personal loss in my life, I wanted to move back into patient care, so I came back to the OR, where I’ve been since. Now, I work as the charge nurse, which has a different set of activities and challenges.

Along the way, I have been involved with two professional organizations — the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses (AORN) and the Washington State Nurses Association (WSNA), which is also our union. As a union grievance officer, I have helped nurses navigate distressing issues, which usually have a misunderstanding and/or poor communication component. It is always rewarding when we are able to come to a positive conclusion for both parties. I was recently on our contract negotiation team, which was a very interesting and positive experience, resulting in the biggest raises I have ever seen at the hospital.

Within the hospital, I have been on several committees from the department to the hospital-wide levels, including representing WSNA on several committees.

My message to nurses considering the operating room is, “Come join us.” We have an excellent, fully paid training program. It is a dynamic, advancing place to be; there are lots of opportunities to grow and challenge yourself and lots of fun, intelligent, interesting people to work with.

Best of all, we make a big, positive difference to the lives of our patients and have the satisfaction of spending our time doing something meaningful