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A Busy Day in the Life of an Unsung Hero: The Operating-Room Nurse

November 14, 1985|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

In most cases, they're the last people patients see before being put to sleep by the anesthesiologist and the first ones they see when they wake up.

They are the operating-room nurses: the registered nurses who provide patient care before, during and after surgery.

It's a high-stress job that requires emotional and physical stamina, the ability to operate complicated equipment and a knowledge of literally hundreds of operative procedures as well as surgical instruments and supplies.

On a typical eight-hour shift, an operating-room nurse may be involved in up to four cases, ranging from patients undergoing gall bladder surgery to victims of auto accidents.

Work Closely With Others

Sometimes they work an entire shift with little or no break. With or without a break, they must be able to work closely with other surgical-team members who are under stress. As one 35-year veteran of the operating room said, "In other areas of nursing you have a chance to walk away from it for a few minutes. Here, you can't."

For operating-room nurses, a sense of humor is considered a necessity for emotional survival.

Today is the seventh annual Operating Room Nurse Day, a little-known national observance honoring the unsung heroes of nursing services.

At UCI Medical Center in Orange--a level-one trauma center offering all services 24 hours a day, seven days a week--the operating-room staff consists of 30 registered nurses.

This is a story about a day in the life of one of them--Suzy Cummings, who, at 28, has eight years' experience in the operating room.

"Our staff has been involved in cases since early morning," operating-room nurse Jo Demos said. "We've done patients from age 87 down to 8 months this morning."

Demos, clinical resource consultant for operating-room services, was escorting a visitor on a tour down the T-shaped, white-walled hallway, which passes by eight operating rooms.

It was 1:15 on a recent Friday afternoon, a half hour before Cummings and three other operating-room nurses on the evening shift come on duty. A part-timer since returning to work from maternity leave in September, Cummings would be working a 10-hour shift that would not end until 12:15 a.m.

At the moment, Demos said, six operations were under way: multiple skin grafts on a man who lost his arm in an accident, brain tumor surgery, a breast biopsy, gall bladder surgery, an abdominal hysterectomy for cancer and an infertility procedure to determine whether a patient is able to have a baby.

So far, no trauma cases. But, Demos said, Fridays usually were fairly busy with trauma cases.

And, she observed, the weather was nice, and the traffic was picking up.

1:45 p.m.

It's referred to simply as "the board."

It's a wall-sized, white-grease-pencil board at one end of the operating-room hallway. It lists the names of patients, operating procedures they will be undergoing, the operating-room numbers, and the names of the doctors and nurses assigned to each case.

The board, as Demos explained, "is our bible, our guide for the day."

And it's where Suzy Cummings and the other operating-room nurses on the evening shift reported after changing out of their street clothes and into their blue uniforms: a cotton scrub suit and disposable shoe covers and caps.

Tall and thin with her medium-length blond hair tucked inside her surgical cap, Cummings stood in front of the board with Demos and two other evening-shift nurses.

'Need Some Help'

As they read the assignments, Demos noticed a bed being wheeled around the corner from the emergency room.

"We need some help here," she announced to the nurses.

Cummings went over to the bed and examined the patient's medical chart. Then she wheeled the bed down the hall, stopping outside Operating Room 4.

"Are you warm enough?" she asked the patient, an elderly man who had broken his hip in a car accident two days earlier.

"I'm pretty comfortable--considering," the man replied in a raspy voice through an oxygen mask.

Cummings said the surgeons would be putting a Richard's screw--a large stainless-steel screw--into the man's hip in order to stabilize the fracture.

Meantime, Cummings and the patient would wait in the hall until a nurse, a technician and a housekeeper finished cleaning and preparing the operating room for the next patient.

In operating-room parlance, it's called "turning over" a room, a task that takes 15 minutes or less.

2:05 p.m.

Sitting in an empty operating-room office for a brief interview, Cummings said that she grew up on a farm outside the small Nebraska town of Murdock.

She decided to become a nurse in high school after taking a biology course from a teacher who was, she said, "an anatomy and physiology enthusiast. I really enjoyed it, so that kind of led me into nursing."

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