FVCC program prepares students for crucial role in operating room

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Surgical technology is an associate degree that typically takes three semesters to complete.

They’re the ones who will hand the surgeon the scalpel when their training is completed, but the surgical technology students at Flathead Valley Community College say there is much more to what they do than that.

Four students currently claim the little-known major, but according to second-semester student Shelby Kropp, operating rooms would not function the same without them.

Members of the public were invited Sept. 20 in celebration of National Surgical Technology Week into the practice lab on the FVCC campus where Kropp and her classmates set up an open house showcasing the skills, instruments, wardrobe and gore associated with a job many don’t know exists.

Kropp said she was one of them, moving from major to major during her early years of college but always returning to the medical field before she discovered surgical technology.

She was drawn by the guts and gore, the high level of skill involved and the challenge of working in an operating room.

When people ask Kropp what she studies and she says surgical tech, usually, she said, they have no idea what the job entails.

To save time, she said, she tends to dumb it down by saying, “I’m the one that passes the scalpel.”

Given the opportunity, however, she can go into great detail about what she considers one of the most intimidating, yet rewarding medical fields she knows.

Rather than simply handing doctors shiny silver instruments when asked, surgical technicians are required to know and anticipate every step in the surgery, providing the needed tools and assistance for each.

They carry the responsibility of maintaining a sterile environment throughout each surgery, a job that takes extensive training and remains one of the most vital aspects of patient safety.

Sterility, Kropp said, must remain at the forefront of the technician’s mind at all times because of how easily a sterile environment can be contaminated.

“Just touching you, if I was sterile, I would be contaminated. I’d have to go change everything,” she said.

“And you’re not just watching yourself. You’re watching everyone else in the room so they don’t contaminate any of your instruments or the patient or anything else,” she added.

Surgical technology is an associate degree that typically takes three semesters to complete.

The first semester consists of an introductory course where students learn basics such as terminology and identification of hundreds of different instruments and draping, techniques and procedures. After the basics comes a more in-depth study of some of the surgical specialties, including facial, EMT and eyes.

Second-semester students, like Kropp, gather in the lab before 7 a.m. Monday through Wednesday to perform mock surgeries in each of those specialties.

When students enter the lab they receive simulated cases, complete with a surgical procedure they must prepare based on the list and specification on each chart.

Their job is to prepare a “patient,” pulling the specified instruments, adjusting the patient’s position and laying the draping, all with a sterile technique that leaves little margin for error.

Once the patient has been prepped, a surgeon comes in to simulate a procedure.

Wednesday was hernia repair day.

The next step for Kropp and her classmates will be their clinical phases, coming up next semester. After that, they will each go straight to work in hospital operating rooms.

A SURGICAL technician acts as the surgeon’s right hand, literally.

The tech must be able to read the surgeon and react in an instant as conditions change, while adjusting to each surgeon’s preferences in instruments and methods.

“Techs specifically have to anticipate every move the surgeon makes and be prepared for anything. Anything could go wrong in a second,” Kropp said.

Though she said it takes an entire medical team to ensure the success of an operation, the importance of a technician lies with his or her ability to keep an eye on the patient, an eye on the surgeon and an eye on their environment.

“Most people don’t know we exist because we operate behind closed doors, and most people think we’re doctors or nurses,” said Rob Blackston, former director of the surgical technology program.

According to the program’s interim director, Patty Lincoln, surgical technicians are in high demand both nationally and locally.

Blackston said this is largely because of the growing geriatric population. As baby boomers get older, they require more health care, and consequently, more surgeries.

Though Kropp said it took a lot of trial and error to figure out what she wanted to do, she said she feels she has finally found her calling.

“I love surgery. I love blood and guts and gore. That has never bothered me,” she said. “Surgery’s a big deal, and it’s a huge way to help people. That’s probably why I got into it.”

For more information on FVCC’s surgical technology program, visit https://www.fvcc.edu.

Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or mtaylor@dailyinterlake.com.

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