First Day by Barbara O’Donnell

Arriving before the required time of 08.00, I sit waiting for the person who is to show us around.  There are four of us, all new girls. This is my first ever job in a hospital and in an operating department.  The way it was talked about at interview, it sounds a bit like stocking up the bar at home, with the additional task of bringing patients to and from the ward.

I’m dying to do more than that, but have no idea if they’ll let me.

Just on 08.00, I am taken into the female changing room, given a set of blue scrubs and told to strip to my underwear.  Even removing your clothes takes place in a particular order here.  I get into the scrubs as quickly as I can, mindful that I am now technically late on my first day, and wondering how on earth anyone ever gets changed in a hurry for an emergency.  I don the disposable hat, like a J cloth, and pin my badge on, ready and waiting.

The department is busy but doesn’t seem unfriendly.

A tall Irish fella and a Jamaican fella, greet us with enthusiasm.  We’re taken off to meet Matron; a fearsome prospect, and have a thorough tour of the department.  Along the way, we meet the sisters of each operating theatre, all equally scary in various ways.  I want to write everything down, despite knowing it looks like brown nosing.

I want to remember where and what the thing is, when I am sent looking for it.

After some training on various pieces of equipment, I get to accompany the tall Irish fella to the ward to pick up a patient.  He talks easily, asking me where I’m from and explaining various things as we go.  On the ward, the nurses stare at me, as if they’ve never seen a woman before.

It seems they’ve never seen a female porter before.

Later on, I get shown to one of the operating theatres where the orthopaedic list finishes early.  I am left in the care of a kindly West Indian Senior Staff Nurse, who shows me around the theatre, and tells me what I can and can’t touch. Theatre has a precise routine and layout.  She has a great deal of experience and moves around the environment with ease and familiarity.

That’s what I want to do.

Then word comes in that we are getting a case from the Accident and Emergency Department.  It is a “hot” abdominal aortic aneurysm, and someone says the patient has a 50/50 chance, even with the surgery that is about to be performed. Everyone starts running around, gathering instrument trays, disposables, swabs and sutures.

The Senior Staff Nurse tells me kindly, but firmly, that I am to stand at a certain point in the room, with my back to the wall, and not to move an inch.

When the patient arrives from A & E, it is a scene straight from the television.

Flying along the corridor, someone at the patient’s head, blowing air into the lungs with a green bag, someone else up on the bed, straddling the patient’s chest, using both hands to pump up and down on the chest in a sustained rhythm.  Some holding bags of fluid, literally squeezing it into the patient’s veins with their hands.  Others responsible for getting the bed safely around all the corners and opening doors.

This is what full cardiopulmonary resuscitation looks like, though I can’t name it yet.

Itching to help in whatever way I can, I slide along the wall, and find myself in the room where the surgeons wash their hands, before putting on the gown and gloves to operate cleanly.  A surgeon is washing his hands hurriedly, and says to me “Size 7 gloves please, NOW!”  I get what he’s asking me, but have no idea how to open the pack in the prescribed way that means I won’t touch the inner sterile contents.

I panic and stutter out that I don’t know how.

He goes to the dispenser, despite already having washed his hands, pulls out the packet, opens the gloves, and then starts getting into the gown without rewashing his hands.

There is no time.

He goes straight over to the patient, already prepped and draped, takes a knife to the skin, and short minutes later is covered in blood.  Then another few minutes later there is blood everywhere.  As fast as the anaesthetist can pump in the O negative, it is coming out again.

This aneurysm has blown.

After some time trying to save this patient’s life, it becomes clear that the damage to the artery is too severe and whatever the surgeon or anaesthetist does, it isn’t going to save them.  Just minutes ago, the patient was actively bleeding.  Surely that means they’re still alive?

Then one of the doctors calls out “Time of Death”, and I can’t believe what I am hearing.