By Debra Dennis
Jai Atkins left a promising career as a flight attendant to start her work life over. Shunning the airline's management program, she decided to pursue her long-held dream of working in the medical field.
Last year, she enrolled in the Dallas County Community College District's surgical technology program at El Centro College. Atkins is crafting her skills at the school's mock surgical suite located in the Allied Health and Nursing Building.
“I spent nearly 20 years as a flight attendant, and I wanted something different,” said Atkins, who expects to finish her courses in June. “The health care field has always interested me. I didn't want to do nursing, per se. I want to be in health care but also to be proactive in a different way.”
Surgical technology, she said, provided that option. Atkins was drawn to the field partly because of the mercurial nature of surgeries.
“If you're part of the medical field, you have to be adaptive,” Atkins said. “No day is ever the same. No hour is the same. It's quite similar to aviation. You have sequences. There is an order in how things are going to be done. You may start doing one type of surgery, and your duties can change during that surgery. You always have to be ready.”
Assisting and caring for patients is one of the most essential parts of an operation. Also called scrub techs or operating room techs, surgical technologists are essential to the delivery of safe, surgical care. Their duties vary and may include transporting patients to and from surgery.
“Safety is critical in any surgery, and you have to be aware that there sometimes are unforeseen circumstances,” Atkins said. “So you adjust. You're trained, and you rely on your training.”
Preparation ensures that operations run smoothly. Surgical technicians maintain a sterile environment, pass instruments and supplies to surgeons, and are responsible for patient safety. Surgeons and other staff members depend on them to count sponges and keep track of instruments, supplies and other equipment used in the operating room.
Serving others has always been at the forefront of Natali Estrada's goals. She left a career at a private day care center to pursue surgical technology.
Her parents pushed her toward nursing, a field she wasn't convinced would suit her.
“At first I thought: this is hard. But after a while, you don't get dizzy. You get used to the butterflies in your stomach, and you remember that this is about your patient,” said Estrada, who also finishes her courses in June. “And then you see it as rewarding. You're actually making an impact.”
“I love helping people, and this seems like a good career,” added Estrada, who worked with children before she enrolled in El Centro's surgical technology program.
Dressed in scrubs with hair and faces covered, students take part in mock learning sessions at El Centro's nursing lab. Blades, sutures and hypodermic needles are routinely passed among them as they rehearse drills.
The training is repetitious but vital, said fellow student Lisa Sagnibene. “You can't be turned off by body fluids,” she said. “Any surgery can go from mundane to manic.”
Trained surgical technologists are tasked with a multitude of assignments – all designed to give optimum care before, during and after a medical procedure. They prepare operating rooms, get patients ready for surgery, count supplies – including sponges and instruments – and they maintain a sterile work area.
The work is intense, said Belinda Allen, who oversees the surgical technology program at El Centro. This career field places its graduates in environments where they work next to surgeons, registered nurses and anesthesiologists.
Students learn critical thinking skills and time management; they become a valued member of a surgical team. Allen boasts that her students are quick, observant and love details. She hopes that her eight students, all on track to graduate in a few months, will become part of a focused and dedicated workforce.
Surgical technologists are skilled at making sure medical procedures are accomplished under ideal conditions or with optimum competency. They are an integral part of any surgical team and must prepare for anything unforeseen.
Hospital training ensures that students get a feel for the rigors of the job, Allen said.
“Surgeries can last 30 minutes or eight or 10 hours,” Allen explained. “You can't focus on the clock. You have to be prepared, professional and, of course, pay attention. The doctors are not looking up to see which instrument you're putting in their hands. You have to know, and they trust you to know.”
Technologists can work part time or full time. And some are roving workers, which means that they can work at more than one medical facility, Allen said. “Surgery is surgery. You just have to learn a new environment. The point is, it's a team effort. Doctors and nurses depend on them to be knowledgeable, confident and adaptable,” she added.
The pay is steady, and the job outlook remains positive through 2017. Workforce Solutions of Greater Dallas project 1,500 job openings in the field through the year.
Workers may be called on to work nights, weekends and holidays or double shifts. The demand for workers in this field is expected to grow 15 percent through 2024 to accommodate an aging population that requires more surgeries, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The average salary is about $21.31 per hour or $44,330 annually.
In addition to training at El Centro's nursing lab, students work under supervision in local hospitals where they get first-hand experience. Most surgical technologists work in hospitals; others are employed in outpatient facilities and at doctor's offices.
“We tell them: Every day you're in the hospital is like a day you're interviewing for a job. Once the staff gets to know you and they see what you can do, they will trust you,” Allen said. El Centro is the only DCCCD college which offers an associate degree in the field.
For more information, contact the El Centro College Center for Allied Health and Nursing – located at 301 N. Market St. at Pacific in downtown Dallas – at 972-860-5001 or 972-860-5002; or contact Belinda Allen at either firstname.lastname@example.org
or at 972-860-5047.
Students Jai Atkins and Natalie Estrada practice techniques in El Centro's nursing lab.