Today we present an interview with Leann Williams, a surgical technologist and surgical technologist educator from Tucson, Arizona.
What makes surgical technologists special?
“We are one of the only healthcare professionals who get the opportunity to hold a beating heart, touch the brain; not just a mind, and bring life into this world.”
How did you first get interested in Surgical Technology?
“I wanted to be in the healthcare field as a young adult. After watching MASH, (a television show popular back in 1972-1983 about a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital ) I knew surgery was for me. I walked into the school 26 years ago and have never looked back with regret. I absolutely love this profession.”
How wonderful that you enjoy the position as much today as you did when you first started. That’s rare. Tell, me, how long did it take to earn your degree?
“It didn’t take too long. I graduated with a Diploma in one year.”
Just a year and you were practicing. That’s good news for many of our readers who want to be in a healthcare profession, but want to get into the field as soon as they can. While you were in school, what was your favorite part of the surgical technology program?
“My favorite part of school was learning, thinking about the possibilities of the profession and knowing I would be making a difference in people’s lives. I feel the same way about being a surgical technologist.”
While you were in school, was there a course you found more difficult than other courses?
“Anatomy was hardest for me. Suturing can also be a difficult skill to learn.”
I can see how those two courses would be difficult. Our readers may be seriously considering entering school for surgical technology. If they make the decision to do so, what is the most important thing they need to remember while enrolled in a program?
“I would tell them three things. Never give up; the word “no” means try again; and tomorrow is a new day. Those three concepts become a philosophy to get you past days when the program feels overwhelming.”
You’ve been a surgical technologist for a while. Is there a type of surgery you like better than others?
“I like brains, big open vascular procedures, orthopedics, and general surgery. I have to confess that I don’t like teeth and eye surgeries make me cry.”
Thank you for sharing that. I think eyes would make me cry, too. In our surgical technology article series, we share that a person can become a surgical technologist, and then move on to become a surgical first assistant. What’s the difference between the two? Do you recommend one over the other? Is there any advantage of being one or the other?
“I’ll try to break this down. The first step everyone has to take is graduating from an accredited surgical technology program and to get some experience. Then, if you want to assist in surgery, you would apply to an accredited first assist program.
The opportunities as a first assist are different because you can do more. Career options are also broader. You can work for a hospital, a surgeon, or be self-employed. Reimbursement qualifications are different in each state.”
Thank you for explaining this and helping us understand you have to be a surgical technologist before becoming a first assistant. Do you recommend becoming a Certified Surgical Technologist; a CST?
“I always recommend taking the CST exam and remaining current in this profession. Being a CST helps to promote the profession by letting the community know you have gone the extra mile, followed by continuing educational credits to remain current. CSTs are hoping that all states will adopt certification as a requirement of employment.”
In talking with you before the interview, you shared with me that sometimes a surgical technologist can become a permanent part of a team. How difficult is it to become a regular or permanent member of a surgical care team?
“Educators always hope the hospital where the extern (clinical) is performed, that employment will follow. Just like any other profession, if you are not motivated to work, you will not be offered a job.”
Thanks. Can you tell our readers what is a common misperception people may have about surgical technology as a career?
“That’s a good question. Most people think that all we do is pass instruments. We do much more than that. We know anatomy and apply the knowledge of instrumentation and equipment to surgical procedures. We understand pharmacology, patient care concepts, the importance of aseptic technique, decontamination and sterilization of instruments, position, prepping and draping of the patient, and policy and practices around prepping products for the safety of the surgical patient”
That’s quite a bit of responsibility. I can see why a degree, and a CST are important. Can you share with us any one thing to always keep in mind when you’re a surgical technologist involved in an active surgery?
“Never forget that no matter what condition the patient is in, they were/are someone’s baby. Remember to always treat each and every patient as you would want your own baby/mother/family member treated. Everyone is someone’s VIP.”
I think that’s very true and thank you for reminding all of us about that. Can you tell us if there is anything a person still in high school can do to prepare to become a surgical technologist?
“I recommend making an appointment with the program director of a surgical technology program. Interview that person and see if they inspire you to be more. Watch YouTube videos of different surgeries, talk to surgeons, visit the school, and talk to their students. Always make sure you have a passion to make a difference.”
As a surgical technologist yourself, what is the most challenging aspect of the profession? And the most rewarding?
“One of the most challenging aspects is death. Members of surgical teams invest so much energy that when a patient passes, we all have to walk through the stages of grief. Death always has an impact and while you may never get used to it, you do have to accept it as part of the profession.
The most rewarding is having the opportunity to see a person, who is your patient, like no one else has. We see them inside and out, literally. It’s a huge honor to have the trust of patients and their family members.”
Medical technologies, techniques, and even approaches change almost daily. What advancements in surgical techniques and equipment do you see?
“The first thing is Robotics (DaVici). They are being used for more procedures. I also see more efficient surgeries. Surgeries that in the past took four hours are now taking approximately 30 minutes. The equipment is advancing to make dissection easier. All of this promotes better care for patients.”
A question related to this is about the machines in an OR. Our previous articles have mentioned that sometimes surgical technologists have to make sure machines are in good working order. Is it hard to learn what all the machines in an OR do?
“This is like any new job. It takes practice and repetition, which is why there are so many clinical hours involved in surgical technology education programs. Continuing education also keeps you abreast of anything new you may need to know about or get comfortable with.”
You referred to continuing education. What types of continuing education credits have you obtained over the years?
“I attend the Association of Surgical Technologists (AST) National Conference, instructor forums, state AST workshops, online CEU offerings. As your readers may know, maintaining a CST requires 60 CEUs over four years. If someone advances to a first assistant, that license, a Certified Surgical First Assistant (CSFA), requires 75 CEUs over four years.”
I appreciate your patience with all these questions. I promise we only have a few more. How long would you say an average operation lasts?
“Length is determined by the type of surgery needed, and if any complications arise. Surgeries can be as short as ten minutes or as long as eight hours.”
Our previous articles on surgical technology mention that surgical technologists are members of a surgical care team. How many members are on such a team?
“For a typical case, members of a care team include a surgeon, an assistant (physician assistant, certified first assistant or medical doctor), an anesthesiologist, a surgical technologist and a registered nurse. For a heart procedure or larger case, there may be additional surgical technologists and registered nurses.”
This is the last question. I know there are unique sights and sounds and even odors in an operating room that the average person doesn’t normally encounter. Did you have to get used to all that?
“This question brings me to a story about when I first started. I was still in school and went for an observation day in the operating room. My very first surgical procedure was a laminectomy (a procedure that enlarges a spinal canal in order to relieve pressure on the spinal cord or nerves). They brought the patient into the operating room and promptly removed the blanket, exposing the patient’s completely naked body. I quickly turned around and counted the tiles on the ceiling behind me. So, to answer your question, yes, I had to get used to all kinds of things. But eventually I did and realized that smells and patients aren’t like Christmas presents. It doesn’t really matter what’s on the outside. They are all the same on the inside.”
Thank you so much for your time today. I know the insights and information you’ve shared today will help our readers know if this is the career path for them.
Leann Williams is currently the Program Director of the surgical technology program at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. Her program currently maintains above an 85% passing rate on the national certification for surgical technologists. Before entering the field of surgical technology education, Ms. Williams worked as a surgical technologist for over ten years at Northwest Medical Center and over 11 years at Tacoma General Hospital.
Get Started on Your Path of Surgical Technology Today
Ms. Williams shared with us that the skill of suturing may be difficult to learn. If her interview has sparked your interest in becoming a surgical technologist, why not get a head start on your own suturing skills? You can do so through The Apprentice Doctor. We offer a suturing kit, complete with instructional videos, where you can practice suturing, tying knots and other skills common in the field of surgical technology. As you gain agility in performing these critical tasks, your confidence in pursuing this career will grow. More importantly, after completing this internationally accredited program, and talking to a surgical technologist program director as Ms. Williams suggests, you’ll know if surgical technology is the field for you.
If you missed any article in our surgical technology series and would like to go back and catch up, click on the following links: