The first time I saw the inside of a veterinary operating room, I was 15 years old. I was one of about 20 kids in my high school sophomore class who had been chosen to take part in a mentorship program, one that allowed us to spend an entire week in the professional setting of our choice to learn about our areas of interest. Of course I picked veterinary medicine, who wouldn’t?!
I was wearing a sterile blue gown over my clothes, a surgical cap, mask, shoe covers, and latex gloves, and I had been warned repeatedly to Not. Touch. Anything.
I walked into a fairly dimly-lit room, save for the light above the surgical table that was so bright you could have landed airplanes by it. On the table, lying spread-eagled face-up and attached to an anesthetic machine, was a female dog who was about to undergo a routine spay operation.
The veterinarian and her technician were already in the room. When I entered, I stood several feet away, but not far enough away that I couldn’t see everything that was happening. I was nervous, excited, intimidated, and praying with every fiber of my being that the Cheerios I had for breakfast that morning would stay exactly where they were supposed to.
The doctor made the incision, a long clean line in the center of the dog’s abdomen. Okay, that wasn’t so bad! With a delicate touch, she proceeded to cut apart the underlying fascia and muscle in order to get into the abdominal cavity.
Was it my imagination, or was it getting hotter? I blinked a couple of times and tried to focus on the anatomy lesson in front of me. There, we were through the muscle wall. Apparently, the uterus and ovaries must have been buried down in there pretty deep, because, as she explained, she needed to move the small intestine out of the way first.
You know how it is when you’re so hot that even your hair and fingernails feel like they’re sweating? Beads of sweat were breaking out on my upper lip, and my hair felt damp underneath my cap. Come on, you can do this! It’s only internal organs!
I would have been fine, I swear I would’ve. But as luck would have it, at that moment the doctor got an urgent phone call and she had to step out of the room, leaving me alone with the technician. We made eye contact, and I smiled half-heartedly. Then I looked down to see that the dog’s respirations were picking up, which was causing her intestines to come peeking out of the incision and spill over onto the outside of her body with each breath. And that’s the last thing I remember.
Tales From The Veterinary Operating Room
Fortunately, that was the one and only time I ever fainted in an operating room. Despite that terribly embarrassing experience, eventually I went on to attend school for veterinary technology, and found myself in an internship at Ohio State’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
My first surgery at Ohio State was on a beautiful Maltese dog who had become blind from cataracts. In a teaching hospital, there are always multiple people in the operating room – several performing critical functions, others observing. For that surgery, I happened to get one of the coolest jobs I could have hoped for. During cataract removal, there is one critical point where the patient needs to be completely still so the surgeons can perform the most delicate part of the operation. The anesthesiologist was going to inject a drug to temporarily paralyze the dog’s diaphragm so the movement of her lungs wouldn’t cause any unexpected movement in her body. My job was to manually breathe for the dog during those moments, keeping her alive by inflating her lungs with oxygen every time the surgeons gave the word.
Everything went off without a hitch. After the surgery, my job was recovery – staying with the dog and monitoring her while she woke up to make sure there were no complications. To this day, I still remember the moment she opened her eyes and looked at me… and mine was the first face she was actually able to see in years. That feeling, of being a small part of a miracle, was unlike any other I’d ever experienced, and it would drive me throughout the rest of my veterinary career.
During my time at Ohio State, I had the opportunity to assist during many other fascinating surgeries:
- An eye enucleation (eyeball removal) on a horse.
- A limb amputation on a dog (yes, the stories you hear are true, severed limbs do indeed twitch and move for several minutes afterwards).
- Numerous tumor removals on dogs and cats.
- Several colic surgeries on horses (did you know it takes at least 5 people and a hydraulic lift to get a horse into position for colic surgery? You gotta be strong mentally and physically for that job!)
Despite the somewhat graphic and gory day-to-day nature of the role, my internship only served to reinforce my belief that I had indeed chosen the coolest job on the planet.
Veterinary Surgery In The Real World
After my internship was completed, I graduated and became an official Registered Veterinary Technician. This title gave me carte blanche access to a world that included everything about veterinary medicine that I loved. Drama? Open body cavities? Life and death struggles? Yes please!
It also gave me the opportunity to work in an environment in which every day was different. There is no boredom in veterinary medicine. Every day is something new, something unexpected, a chance to witness things that most other people never get the chance to see.
I was particularly fond of exploratory surgery. It was always a guessing game – like one of those carnival machines where you guide the claw into the giant pile of toys and see what you come out with. Over the years I assisted with removing all kinds of objects from the GI tracts of dogs: socks, dish towels, sticks, underwear, rocks, even a little green plastic army man. We removed tumors the size of grapefruit and repaired bowel perforations by removing the damaged pieces of intestine and sewing the 2 healthy ends back together. Many of the surgeries I witnessed were nothing short of miraculous.
But my favorite experiences inside the veterinary operating room were unquestionably the C-sections. There was always something awe-inspiring and sacred about peering inside a mama dog or cat and seeing her uterus moving, filled with tiny squirming puppies or kittens who were ready to greet the world. As the delicate babies came out one by one, we functioned as part of a well-tuned assembly line, vigorously massaging them in soft towels to get them breathing, suctioning amniotic fluid from their noses, cutting their umbilical cords, and making sure they were strong and healthy before placing them in a blanket-lined box warmed with heating pads.
During my time in veterinary surgery, I also developed a cast-iron stomach. Sights, sounds, smells – nothing bothered me. I knew I had finally been indoctrinated the day we had 10 surgeries back-to-back, one of which was treating a rabbit abscess (which hits about a 9.5 on the grossness scale in terms of sight and smell). We were so busy that while I was assisting the veterinarian in cleaning out the abscess (whose contents resembled – sorry – strawberry cream cheese), I ran out into the hallway to eat my lunch between flushes of the wound. To this day, I still remember the smile and nod from the veterinarian, who seemed proud at how far I’d come.
What It Takes To Navigate The Veterinary O.R.
Successfully navigating the veterinary operating room requires intense focus. You have to constantly be aware of not contaminating sterile field, which includes the surgically-prepped patient, instruments on the surgical table, and your own gown, mask, and gloves. If you’re monitoring the patient under anesthetic, you learn to pick up on the slightest changes in breathing and heart rate that could signal a life or death problem.
You learn the names and functions of at least 50 different surgical instruments, how they’re used, and at what angle to hand them to the surgeon. You need to be able to think on your feet – and be quick on them, staying out of the way during surgery and deftly dodging materials (including bodily fluids and other parts) that may inadvertently drop onto the floor.
But most of all, you develop the highest level of communication with the surgeon, an unspoken rapport that allows you anticipate their needs and next moves without them even having to ask. That’s the one skill that makes a good Veterinary Technician invaluable, to both doctors and patients.
The world of veterinary surgery is filled with exhilaration, pain, and awe-inspiring miracles. Some days you get to be the hero, and other days you go home and cry in the bathroom where no one can hear you. It’s not always glamorous, but the opportunity to fix things that are broken, to make a difference every day, to heal…there is no greater sense of satisfaction.
Have you ever worked in veterinary medicine or veterinary surgery? Have you ever wanted to? Please share your stories with us in the comments below!