Friday, February 8, 2008

Soldiers Learn to Assist With Surgeries

Photo: Army Staff Sgts. Isagani Maawac (left) and Michael Adkins, both operating room specialist instructors, teach a young visitor about surgery as part of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl festivities in January. The operating room specialists set up a mock surgical suite to give people a glimpse into the duties of Army medical professionals. Courtesy photo

Up front and in the spotlight, surgeons often are revered by patients and grateful family members for their lifesaving skills and knowledge.

However, other lifesaving medical professionals are working just as hard out of the spotlight and behind the operating room doors.

The Army's operating room specialists, known as "68 Deltas," are trained at the Army Medical Department Center and School here and are responsible for everything from holding retractors and passing instruments to sterilizing equipment and preparing specimens for the lab. Their tasks may sound simple in comparison to those of a highly trained surgeon's, but, in their case, looks are deceiving.

"If an operating room specialist isn't doing his or her job correctly by maintaining sterile technique, then infection rates in the hospital will rise," said Lt. Col. Kathleen McArthur, chief of the 68 Delta branch.

McArthur oversees the operating room specialist training program, which comprises two phases and trains about 400 students a year. The first nine-week phase consists primarily of classroom instruction that culminates in a 72-hour field training exercise at nearby Camp Bullis.

"Our students learn how to carry out their job from the first step, which is setting up the case cart for the operation with a perioperative nurse," McArthur said.

Once the surgery begins, operating room specialists must know how to set up a sterile field, pass instruments to a surgeon, apply dressings, take care of a specimen, and then tear down the room and take equipment to central materiel service for sterilization. Specialists also learn to sterilize equipment.

"The course is very challenging," said student Pvt. Tommy Chavez. "But I'm enjoying it. I've always been interested in the medical field."

The job is not for the faint of heart or weak-stomached, so new students are shown graphic pictures and video of surgeries so they can get a glimpse of what is to come.

"It's common for students to pass out, even out in the field," McArthur said. "Some people have a blood aversion, and others just get nervous the first time they're in a surgical setting."

Phase Two is 10 weeks in length. Students apply their new knowledge and skills in surgical settings at large Army medical centers or at small Army community hospitals. This phase can occur at any of 14 military medical facilities throughout the nation, including Brooke Army Medical Center here, which is a Level One trauma center.

"Students see gunshots, motor vehicle accidents and burns at BAMC," McArthur said. "It's very similar to the environment in a combat situation and is good preparation for deployment."

Course leaders always keep an eye on the battlefield and work to weave lessons learned in Iraq into the curriculum to ensure students are ready for any situation.

"Many of our instructors have deployed and share pictures and knowledge that we integrate with the classes," McArthur said.

The operating room specialist role grows in intensity during deployments. The specialists may serve with a forward surgical team, assisting with life-sustaining surgeries, or a combat support hospital farther away from the front lines.

"You have to be able to keep a cool head, which is why realistic training, like we have here, is so important," McArthur said.

After training, students are equipped with the knowledge to assist with all types of operations, including orthopedics, cardio-thoracic, neurosurgery, podiatry, vascular, opthalmic and general surgery. As they gain more experience, "they are given more responsibility such as patient transportation, setting up surgical suites, operating surgical equipment and helping to monitor blood loss," McArthur said.

Upon graduation, 68 Deltas are expected to demonstrate, under the direct supervision of a registered nurse, entry-level operating room specialist skills in the operating room and central materiel service, she said.

While surgeons may garner the spotlight, the Army's operating room specialists play a vital role in the supporting cast of a medical team.

"I am pleased to say that the OR branch is staffed with stellar, combat-seasoned NCOs, officers who are leaders in perioperative nursing, and extremely gifted civilian instructors and staff," said Col. Patricia Patrician, chief of the Department of Nursing Science. "We really can accept no less than that to train those who care for the American soldier."

(Author Elaine Wilson works at the Fort Sam Houston Public Information Office.)

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