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What do OR nurses do?

Sabrina Loring, RN, MSN, ANP-C, began as a Surgical Technician over 30 years ago, and went on for an AD in nursing. She received her BSN and MSN from the University of South Maine and has practiced as an Adult Nurse Practitioner in Internal Medicine and Orthopedics. Most recently she has been teaching LPN nursing students, writing medical articles and raising her family.

The operating room is a unique working environment. The role of the operating room nurse is crucial to its smooth and successful function.

The OR nurse has many duties. There are two roles for nurses in an operating room - the circulator and the scrub. The circulator is the coordinator of a single OR room and oversee every aspect of the patient's surgical experience. Prior to the patient's arrival, the nurse will read the physician's preference card and gather the necessary supplies and equipment for the procedure. The nurse works with other team members to open the sterile packs and check all of the equipment. The nurse will also assist the anesthesiologist/nurse anesthetist to help them get ready for the patient's arrival. When the patient enters the room, the nurse will begin the process of identifying the patient, confirming all necessary paperwork and checking for signed consents. One of the most important jobs is to mark the surgical site together with the patient. That way the wrong site isn't operated on. There have been stories in the news about wrong limbs being amputed or the wrong patient being operated. As an OR nurse for over twenty years, I can tell you that this time period before the patient is waiting to have surgery is one of the most frightening times of their lives. I have stood by many patients, holding their hand and gently reassuring them as they drift off to sleep. To me, this is the essence of being a nurse. Once the case is underway, the circulating nurse gets any additional supplies needed, helps anesthesia and fills in all the operative records and paperwork. They also make sure there are no breaks sterility. It is imperative that sterility is maintained throughout the entire procedure, and it is the responsibility of the circulator to continuously monitor that.

The other type of OR nurse is the scrub nurse. I was lucky enough to be a scrub nurse for many years. The scrub nurse passes instruments, holds retractors and may, with additional training, actually assist the surgeon throughout the case and close the wound. There are hundreds of different kinds of surgeries, and the scrub nurse must memorize thousands of different types of instruments, know how to run complex equipment, and be able to physically stand and work for hours without any food or breaks. It may sound grueling, but I loved it. I worked in trauma centers where patients with massive burns, gunshot wounds and victims of motor vehicle accidents had surgery, as well as all types of elective surgeries were performed. I also was part of a team that harvested organs from cadavers for transplants. OR nurses may take "call" which means they are available to work on a moment's notice.

OR nurses are able to practice in a fascinating field of medicine, and on a diverse population of patients. The kind of nursing care is anything but routine, and it is a vitally important specialty of nursing. It is a specialty that carries responsibility and accountability. I will always be thankful I was able to be an OR nurse for over 20 years.


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