Interview with a ...
Learn more about this occupation in the Occupational Outlook Handbook.
What do you do?
I work as a certified surgical technologist in a hospital trauma center. I start my day by reviewing the list of scheduled procedures. As a Level One trauma center, we also get add-on cases: medical crises that other hospitals can’t handle.
Before each surgery, I gather the instruments and other supplies that we’ll need and then set them up on a sterile-draped backtable. I have to ensure that everything has gone through the proper sterilization processes. After that, I get dressed in a sterile gown and gloves.
Throughout the procedure itself, I directly assist the surgeon, or multiple surgeons. Afterward, I help clean up for the next procedure.
Tell me more about your role during surgery.
I hand the surgeons whatever they may need, usually by anticipating it. I also count the sharps [devices such as suturing needles] and sponges, and sometimes instruments being used, to help make sure that no foreign objects are left in the patient. Patient safety is our top focus.
It’s really important to maintain the sterile field. Surgical site infection is a huge concern, so part of our job is making sure that everything and everyone remain sterile—and fixing a problem if it happens. For example, if a sleeve or glove touches something that’s not sterile, you can cover it with a new sleeve or change gloves. Surgical techs have the authority to stop certain stages of the procedure until it is corrected if someone, even the surgeon, contaminates it.
Do surgical techs interact with patients?
We get hands-on time with patients while they’re still awake, positioning them and getting them ready for surgery. And after the procedure, we may help transport them out of the O.R. [operating room].
Describe a typical schedule.
At most large hospitals, procedures start around 7 a.m. So if you’re on the morning shift, you start working around 6 or 6:30 a.m. Shifts are usually 8 to 12 hours. My shift is later, so I take over for people who get there earlier and have surgeries that are going past the end of their shift. And someone is always on call.
At my hospital, we do many different types of procedures. Some, like a tonsillectomy, might take 30 minutes. Others, like a colorectal procedure, can take hours.
What skills do surgical technologists need?
Communication is probably number one. There’s a lot of communication between you and the nurse when you’re counting all of the instruments and other supplies. And there’s interaction with the surgeon throughout the procedure.
We have to multitask, too, because we must be able to listen while doing a task, especially when getting tissue specimens and handing them off to the nurse. And we have to be able to remain calm amid chaos because things can go wrong, and you need to respond quickly.
How did you prepare for this career?
I earned an associate’s degree in surgical technology. After that, I sat for the Certified Surgical Technologist exam, which is a very difficult test. It’s optional, but certification can help you get a job and show that you know what you’re doing. And it may lead to higher pay. Not every facility requires certification, but mine did.
While in school, I did clinical training at the same hospital where I work now. And as a new tech, I went through orientation, working with other surgical techs until they were confident that I could do the job on my own.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a surgical technologist?
No. I previously worked as a veterinary technologist and that got me interested in medicine in general. I had a few friends who were surgical techs. I talked to them about what they did and realized that it was very attainable, so I decided to change careers. Surgical technology is one of the shorter programs you can go through to get a job in the medical field.
What do you like most and least about surgical technology?
What I like best is the variety of medical specialties; I’m not pigeonholed into working in just one type of surgery. Also, the human body, and what it’s capable of doing, is amazing. And the technology and our ability to fix things are amazing.
A challenge is that there are so many things to be responsible for. It keeps you on your toes. But there’s a sense of pride in knowing that you had a role in helping the patient.
How does surgical technology fit into your career plans for the future?
There are so many other avenues in the medical field that I can take now. A good step for me would be to become a surgical first assistant. “First assists” do the same things as a surgical tech, and more, such as closing up wounds and resecting tissue. First assists need a little more education and another certification.
What’s your advice for prospective surgical technologists?
Study and focus and learn as much as you can while you’re in school, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Things get real once you get to the O.R. and a patient’s life is at stake.
Also, there can be strong personalities in the O.R., and you can’t take it personally if someone is critical. It’s important to have confidence in yourself.
Elka Torpey, "Surgical technologist," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, November 2019.