Flying Solo

Few things represent the hierarchical and tradition-seeped natures of medicine better than the operating room. As many med students will attest, half of the battle of the general surgery rotation isn't learning the post-operative management of surgical patients or how to properly manage a wound infection - it's learning the ebb and flow of the operating room. Tales abound which serve to strike fear and trepidation into subsequent generations of medical students of students being yelled at for touching something, looking at something, breathing improperly, blinking improperly, etc, etc. There's a procedure and tradition for every minute detail of the choreography of the OR, and you are expected to know it all before you learn it all, which contributes to awkward or embarrassing moments aplenty for medical students as they rotate through. I remember when I got yelled at while participating in a patient transfer off the operating table. I was the one pulling the majority of the weight on the rollerboard, and assumed it was my responsibility to do the countdown. 3... 2... 1... I get glares. I'm told to step away from the patient and not touch anything anymore. Turns out it's always Anesthesia which does the countdown, which is logical as they are overseeing/moving the airway, everything that happens in the OR is logical, but how in the hell was I supposed to know that beforehand? Such is life sometimes for a medical student in the OR - expected to know these things, before anyone tells them. In my own limited time in the OR, I have collected a small bundle of mortifying anecdotes. The time I almost desterilized the entire instrument table with a sneeze, the time I put the SCDs on upside down, the time I almost face-planted into the operative field when I slipped on some sigmoidoscope-associated KY jelly which had dribbled onto the floor... the list goes on.

But this post isn't about embarrassment; it's about hierarchy. When standing around the surgical field, there's also a rigid structure to where one must place one's feet. Traditionally, to the upper right of the patient, by the patient's right armpit, stands the lead surgeon. The lead surgeon is, by virtue of the position, the individual in charge of directing and performing the majority of the operation. To the left of the lead surgeon stands the scrub nurse or scrub tech, whose job is to, among other things, maintain sterile technique during the operation, pass instruments to surgeon during procedure, and help perform counts of surgical instruments throughout the procedure. To the upper left of the patient resides the individual providing first assist to the operation - who, among other things, uses the bovie to cut vessels and tissues at the lead surgeon's discretion, helps provide traction to tissue planes to aid in dissection, etc. And to the right of the first assist lies the domain of the medical student: the position of second assist. Here one typically aids in the operation by holding retractors to open the operative view, use suction to remove smoke, fluid, and blood from the operative plane, and tightly covet the Mayo scissors that one uses to cut suture ties. But with the myriad of surgeries and surgical approaches out there, there's also a wide variety of places where the surgeon and assistants stand to get the best exposure into the surgical field. And just likes plays on a football field, its up to the medical student to learn where to proverbially 'line up' for the snap. In an academic institution like my own base of operations, typically a resident provides first assist during the operation and the medical student stands beside as second assist for the operation. But during chance opportunities, such as when the resident is taking the lead on a case, med students are given the opportunity to run first assist, which is infinitely more fun for obvious reasons - namely, being able to more actively participate in the case. Rarely, a med student is offered to take the lead on simple cases (appendectomies, cholecystectomies, etc), which is always something worthy of writing home about, no matter how mundane the case may be for everyone else in the OR.

So a couple weeks ago I was spending a day in the OR with the ENT surgeon who I'm doing research with and a third year resident. We were powering through several of the half dozen cases on the docket for the day and next up on the case list was a simple tonsillectomy. The resident gets called down to the ED for a consult, and suddenly the attending turns to me and says:

"Want to take a whack at it?"

The third year of med school is a lot like the game of golf. All too often, you find yourself feeling incompetent, frustrated, disheartened, or some combination of the three. As your shot out of the shrub grass careens off the tree and lands in the water hazard you didn't take into account, you begin to ask yourself why you even play this stupid game to begin with. But a handful of times during a round, the balls rises gracefully into the air and plops, like it should, down onto the green within spitting distance of that birdie. And before you know it, you're paying another set of green fees and are back for more. Likewise, third year is full of foibles and f*ckups, sometimes asking yourself why you're doing this for the rest of your life. But every once and a while, you get to see or do something incredibly cool that reminds you why you're in it in the first place. And you come back for more.

Well this moment was my proverbial 240 yard approach shot plopped down 6 inches from the pin. The first time I get to take the lead during an operation. I step into position above the patient's head and gaze down at the base of the mouth. Just as I get bovie in hand, the attending laughs and says: "Don't worry... the first tonsillectomy I ever scrubbed on, the patient lost 1800ml of blood. The bar's set pretty low." Great. My resting tremor kicks up a couple notches.

But before I know it, we're off. I go in alongside the anterior tonsillar pillar, find the capsule, and before I know it, the procedure is over. Less nervous than I thought I'd be, but still trying to contain the 8 year old inside of me jumping off the walls going "WOW! That was COOL! Let's do it AGAIN! WHEEEE!"

Yup, back for more.