Fast-growing surgical tech field not for everyone, but gratification can be immense, JWCC participants say

Surgical tech student, Megan Jones, right, prepares instruments during a recent lab at John Wood Community College. (H-W Photo/Michael Kipley)
Posted: Nov. 19, 2012 9:50 am Updated: Dec. 3, 2012 11:15 am
Megan Jones

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Megan Jones will quickly admit the role of surgical technician is not for everyone.

If you have a weak stomach, a different career path might be a wise choice.

But if you can handle all aspects of the job, the gratification far outweighs the challenges.

"Surgery is not like you see on TV on "Grey's Anatomy' or "ER,'" said Jones, who is in the midst of obtaining a two-year applied associate degree in surgical technology at John Wood Community College. "Some of it is what I expected, some of it not at all. It's different every day."

Jones said she felt a personal calling to this type of field, the need to help others.

"This is what I want to do, but it's not necessarily for everyone," she said. "I was always interested in the medical field and had done a lot of volunteering in hospitals. Originally, I was interested in radiology, but found this was the best fit."

Health care organizations in the region and across the country currently have a huge demand for surgical technology graduates. Studies show this need will continue in the coming years, according to the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Surgical technologists work in a wide range areas of health care facilities, including operating and delivery rooms, one-day surgery centers, emergency and central supply departments and ambulatory care centers.

JWCC first accepted students into a certificate program in this area of study in 2000. Cathy Wittler, the college's surgical technology chairwoman, instructor and a graduate of the program, says the development of the two-year applied associate degree follows the progression of the career path, which has expanded in the last several years.

"Educational options are keeping pace with the evolution of the field," Wittler said. "When the career path began, education came through on-the-job training. To build consistency in training and standards, certificate programs were offered and now we are providing the next step to further develop students' skills."

The two-year technical degree and certificate prepare students to work under the supervision of a surgeon to facilitate the safe and effective conduct of invasive surgical procedures. Courses include anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, microbiology and multiple specialized courses and clinical work in surgical technology.

Each student is paired with a skilled, qualified clinical mentor at an area clinical facility. Students complete a minimum of 600 contact hours in the operating room.

The new degree offers additional coursework in the fields of surgical pharmacology, technical math, critical thinking, interpersonal communication and psychology.

"Now that we have a degree, it is an incentive for surgical technologists to improve their skills and competencies," Wittler said. "It will open doors to more career options, including management, surgical equipment representative work and even instruction of the next generation of technologists."

Jones said the one-on-one mentor experience is invaluable.

"I am able to work with someone who is active, who is doing surgeries," the 27-year-old Jones said. "I can really pick their brains."

Jones is also learning about the subtleties of the profession.

"You don't necessarily see the end result of what you do until later ... sometimes, holding someone's hand before surgery can make a big difference," she said. "I'm learning about dedication, and how everyone is focused on the patient."

Betty McDonnell, the JWCC associate dean of health sciences, said the role of a surgical technician continues to evolve with the constant new technologies and techniques that "are revolutionizing the operating room every day."

"We graduate 10 to 12 students a year, and we've had an average placement rate of 90 percent the last two years," McDonnell said. "It is an outstanding field to enter and earning a degree just provides more opportunities for graduates."

Surgical technologists have levels of responsibility based on experience and education. JWCC's program is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Programs.