Surgical Technology lab replicates reality

Carmen Sumner Bridgette

When Bridgette Horner backed her vehicle up to the east entrance of the Surgical Technology Lab at Seward County Community College/Area Technical School, she’d arrived to dispose of usable expired supplies from Morton County Health System in Elkhart.

That’s not how Surgical Technology Instructor Carmen Sumner saw it, though.

As Horner unloaded packages of disposable surgical supplies, Sumner summed it up in one word: “Jackpot!”

Horner serves as Surgical Technologist, Central Supplies Manager and Sterile Processing Department Director at MCHS, but she’s also an alumna of the College. A member of the first-ever surgical technology class to graduate in 1998, she knows exactly what will help surgical technology students learn.

“I’m excited to put these items to use,” Horner said. “They’re expired, so there’s no way the hospital can use them. This is one way they won’t be wasted, and they’ll help support health services in the region.”

The donation is not the first of its kind. Allied Health Services routinely receives gifts from health care providers throughout the region, from defibrillators to disposable materials. It’s a win-win situation in a geographically remote area that often struggles to attract healthcare professionals, noted Ed Anderson, who instructs Respiratory Therapy students.

“I’d say 95 percent of the Respiratory Therapists in the region came through our program,” he said.

For her part, Horner enjoyed the opportunity to see the changes in the SCCC/ATS surgical technology program. The white, metal-sided building located adjacent to the Epworth Allied Health center at the corner of Washington Ave. and Fifth Street presents a modest exterior. Inside, however, students practice what they’ve learned in simulated surgical rooms, with interactive manikins and ever-changing scenarios.

“This is awesome,” said Horner. “It’s so impressive! When I was a student, we had to go to the hospital and use their C-Section room for practice labs.” Occasionally, she recalled, labs were rescheduled because the room was needed for real-life operations.

Sumner routinely witnesses the benefits of hands-on practice that can take place without scheduling conflicts — the more the better, she said.

“I tell the students, ‘You can make mistakes here and there’s no harm done,’” she said. “They’ll be simulating a surgery and if we make a mistake that would normally harm a human, we can start over again and practice the correct technique. Our manikins are very forgiving and let us keep working on our skills until we get them perfected.”

While many people view the role of a surgical technologist as a passive one — on television programs, they’re routinely told, “hand me the scalpel” — Sumner said the reality is all about taking an active role.

“You have to anticipate,” she said. “It’s not just knowing the instruments —“

“ — it’s knowing the surgery,” Horner agreed. “Every procedure. You use what you’ve learned, what you know.”

Horner, who was logged nearly two decades as a Surgical Technologist, viewed the student lab with approval.

“I would have been much less intimidated when I started my clinical if I had been immersed in this,” she said. During her first surgery, she recalled, the surgeon’s hand brushed lightly against her cap as the team prepared to go to work. Horner had to speak up in spite of her nervousness. The surgeon, irritated, had to rescrub and put on fresh, sterile gloves.

“That’s the surgical conscience,” Sumner said. “That’s what students have to learn. We all keep an eye out for those situations. The problem isn’t contamination. The problem is what to do when we recognize it is happening.”

Unlike a few decades ago, when hospitals washed and sterilized gowns, drapes and other required materials used in surgery, today’s healthcare providers rely on disposable materials.

“The instruments are reusable, but that’s about it,” Sumner said. Suppliers now package individual gowns, drapes, gloves, sutures, staples — everything that a surgical team will need for a specific procedure — into bundles that can cost thousands of dollars. To further complicate matters, multiple manufacturers vie for the market, and surgeons often develop preferences for a particular brand of supplies.

What that means for Sumner’s students is a larger body of “unknowns” when they step into a real-life surgery.

“The gowns are different, the packages are different, and I’ve had students experience a moment of panic, where they’re scrubbing in and they are unfamiliar with the particular gown that facility uses,” Sumner said. “We can’t afford to purchase all the different kinds, so we truly rely on donations from area healthcare providers. It’s a wonderful supplement to our program.”

SCCC/ATS Surgical Technology is now accepting applications for the program, which begins in August. Packets for that program, along with Medical Laboratory Technician, Nursing, Respiratory Therapy and Medical Assistant programs, are available at the Epworth Allied Health Education Center, 520 N. Washington. For more information, call Sumner at 620-417-1411.

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