The operating room isn’t just for doctors and nurses.
Surgical assistants, also called surgical and operating room technicians, are critical members of the healthcare team, working closely under the supervision of surgeons to assist on life-saving surgical procedures.
We talked with Stephanie Allen, a surgical technology instructor at Herzing University, about how she got started as a surgical technologist and what students need to know about working in the operating room.
Why did you decide to become a surgical tech? How did you get started in your career?
I had always wanted to be a surgeon, but did not want the life of a surgeon (having to be on call 24/7). After taking the MCAT, I decide to change my major. Eventually, I found a surgical technology program that was exactly what I was looking for. I knew this was a career that I could love doing for the rest of my life. To this day, I truly love what I do and would not want to do anything else.
What do surgical techs do? What does your typical day look like?
The surgical tech (ST) is one of the most important people in the operating room. We know every surgical procedure inside and out and we have to prepare for everything that could go wrong. One of the most important things we do is abide by strict aseptic technique, to make sure that everything is sterile for the procedure. We can also assist the surgeon with different tasks during the procedure, such as suctioning, cutting and retracting.
A typical day for an ST usually starts early in the morning or late at night. Before every procedure, the ST is responsible for making sure that all the equipment, instruments and supplies are set up. After the patient and surgeon arrive, the procedure can begin. This is the part that all STs love because we can help with certain tasks during the surgery. After the procedure is over, we help with the closure of the wound. The patient is then taken to the recovery area while we clean up the room and get ready to repeat the same steps for the next patient.
What is most rewarding about your career?
The most rewarding part about being an ST is being able to help the patients and not getting the recognition. Patients do not know who we are or what we do, but they trust everyone in the room to take care of them. As an ST, I take pride in knowing that a patient trusts me to do my job well and to be their advocate. I do not need the recognition of helping to save someone’s life. I only need the sense of trust from the patients to keep me doing what I love to do.
What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career and how have you overcome them?
Working in the operating room can be challenging. You might encounter a mean surgeon that demeans the other people in the room. Sometimes, you have to deal with the loss of a patient. That happens very rarely, but it does happen. Both can be hard to overcome. You really just have to keep telling yourself that you did everything that you could, but not everyone is perfect. Learn from your mistakes and work harder the next time.
What skills are essential for success in this field?
When it comes to surgery, the ST is an expert. We are expected to know everything – the anatomy and physiology of the body, how the procedure is to be performed, and multiple different variations of the procedure. We need to be prepared for the unexpected and be able to critically think about how to solve any problem. The most two important skills for any ST to demonstrate is the ability to remain calm under pressure and to anticipate the surgeon’s needs before he or she even knows what’s next.
What advice do you have for students interested in a career in this field?
The greatest advice that I have for students that are interested in surgical technology is to have fun and be open to learning every day. The human body is such an amazing wonder of the world. You are going to see, smell and hear things that are not normal. Take it and learn from it. This is such a great career with so many growth opportunities. Never give up and strive for more.
* Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook 2021. BLS estimates do not represent entry-level wages and/or salaries. Multiple factors, including prior experience, age, geography market in which you want to work and degree field, will affect career outcomes and earnings. Herzing neither represents that its graduates will earn the average salaries calculated by BLS for a particular job nor guarantees that graduation from its program will result in a job, promotion, salary increase or other career growth.