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From Rookie to Pro: A Heartfelt Tribute to My Scrub Tech Mentors

Last week we celebrated National Surgical Technologist Week, and from the pictures I saw all over social media, I think there were quite a few celebrations going on! I'm glad, too, because scrub techs are such an important part of the surgical team, and I know that, personally, I wouldn't know all that I do if it hadn't been for the scrub techs who took the time to help me learn, scrubs like Paul and Mel.

Let me tell you about them...

When I first started in the OR, scrubbing was terrifying to me. Although we trained for the day that we would eventually have to scrub in in a real OR, I was so nervous. I would take gowns and gloves home and practice extra, just to make sure I had it right. Then the day finally came - my first day to scrub in. I was assigned to scrub general cases with a scrub named Paul. Paul had been a scrub for 25 years, and he knew everything. He walked me through the steps for what we were doing that day and showed me how to prep for cases.

But, I made a rookie scrub mistake that day - I didn’t eat breakfast. I was too nervous for my first scrub day to be able to eat. I mean, I didn’t want to get sick from nerves in my first case! Well, I didn’t get sick. Instead I passed out. Yes…my first day scrubbing and I passed out. I was standing across from Paul and he risked sterility to grab my hands. He lowered me to the ground and the circulator was able to grab me so that I didn't hit my head. When I came to, the first thing I heard was the surgeon saying, “She’ll never make it in the OR.”

But I did make it!

Fifteen years later, I’m still in the OR and I’m still scrubbing! I would go on to work with some great scrubs, but in all my years in the OR, I didn’t really get formal scrub training. It was a lot of “Oh, here’s this, here’s that, you’ll be fine!” I would always pay attention to the scrub and the field and from this observation I picked up how to scrub, but other than those first few months in my OR orientation, I never really had a good scrub preceptor to teach me the ways.

Fast forward to the summer of 2020. The ORs had opened back up from the Covid shut down, and it was good to be back in the OR. But after working on the floor and mixing up my nursing career, I just felt bored. But, how can you get bored in the OR with everything that goes on? Well, sometimes it takes a change of scenery and a new experience to help you realize what you've been missing.

A few times during the OR shut down I was on call and I was called in to help with emergency heart cases. I remember one case where I was doing chest compressions on a patient as we raced them from the ambulance bay to OR 23 at 2am. I had done trauma for years and loved the rush of emergencies. My current facility is not a trauma hospital, and I realized that day that the adrenaline rush was what I was missing. I would soon found out that there was an opening on the heart team, and after some conversations, I joined the CVOR team in September of 2020.

Circulating came easy. After doing it this long, I really just had to learn how to be a heart circulator. After a month, I was taking call on my own which was fine. Before my vacation in October, my boss pulled me aside and said, “It’s time to make you the next cardiac scrub”. It took me back to my fear of my first day of scrubbing. “You want me to scrub hearts? Are you kidding me??” Most things don’t scare me. Scrubbing hearts did.

And this is where Mel comes in. Mel has been a scrub tech for 13 years. She started out at the hospital doing general before she jumped into the world of hearts 12 years ago. She told me once that she’d never go back to any other service. She has worked and trained numerous Cardiothoracic Surgery (CTS) fellows in her years as a CV scrub. She worked with one surgeon who, after training was over, came to join his dad in practice. He recruited her to come join him and she did. Watching the two of them work is a beautiful thing - it's almost seamless.

As scrubs we’re trained to be one step ahead, but Mel can be multiple steps ahead. She knows what the doctor need sometimes before he realizes he needs it! She can make any disaster seem like nothing. Mel is by far the best scrub I have ever worked with.

She’s patient but pushes you. She’s lets you work at your own pace but then reigns you in to get into a routine. She’s a teacher and a supporter. On more than one occasion she told the surgeon to calm down, that I was learning, and that he needed to be patient with me. He listened to her. She spent days with me going over packs, set up, taking pictures, answering questions. I’d text her at night when I was studying. She could have chosen to ignore my texts since it was after work hours, but she always answered. There is zero doubt in my mind that I know what I do about scrubbing cardiac because of Mel and her commitment to teaching me.

In summer of 2022, Mel decided to go back to nursing school. She has always wanted to be a first assistant in cardiac surgery and knew she would have to become a nurse to pursue this dream. To better herself professionally, to better her family, she started in a weekend nursing program at a university in St. Louis, She works full time, still takes call all while going to nursing school. It’s been great to return the teaching favors to her. To be able to answer her after-hours nursing school questions, quizzing her, and letting her vent about the stress she's experiencing in nursing school. I’ve been so proud to see how successful she has been undertaking it all. She will be a great nurse, and one day an amazing first assistant.

Mel made a lasting impact on me personally and professionally. But I know I'm not the only one. Who mentored you when you came to the OR? Who took the time to teach you and was patient while you learned? Let us know so that we can celebrate them, too!


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