Lessons from the Operating Room

April 6, 2015 | by the Office of Communications and Public Affairs

Katie LaBudde wasn’t sure what to expect when she walked into an operating room at Adventist GlenOaks Hospital in Glendale Heights for the first time in January.

LaBudde is a senior nursing major at Elmhurst, and like most nursing students in the United States, her exposure to surgeries had been limited to brief visits during shadowing experiences in hospitals earlier in her undergraduate studies.

But thanks to an innovative new course, LaBudde and her fellow Elmhurst nursing students now have the rare chance to gain an in-depth understanding of the unique roles nurses play in operating rooms. As part of the course, they put those lessons into practice in a month-long clinical rotation at local hospitals during the College’s January Term.

Introduced in 2013, Elmhurst’s new perioperative nursing course was the first of its kind offered in the Chicago area.

“Most students don’t really get the chance to explore the operating room, and it can be a little scary and a little intimidating,” said LaBudde, who worked more than 60 hours during her January clinical rotation. “This course opened my eyes. It taught me so much. Now I know I would be very happy to work in an O.R.”

The course was introduced at a time when hospitals are facing shortages of nurses trained in surgical specialties. On-the-job training can be costly and takes time, said Assistant Professor Laury Westbury, director of the Elmhurst College Simulation Center at Elmhurst Memorial Hospital.

“Too many nurses lack exposure to specialty areas like perioperative nursing,” Westbury said. As experienced nurses retire and leave the workforce, she said, “The question becomes: Where are we going to find replacements?”

Westbury, who has three decades of experience in surgical nursing, continues to work as a nurse at Adventist Hospital in Hinsdale. She launched the perioperative course shortly after arriving at Elmhurst in 2013.

“I wanted to take what I learned at the hospital level and put it into place in academia,” Westbury said. The course she created covers surgical instrumentation, patient safety, aseptic technologies and the importance of teamwork and communication in the operating room. “The operating room is a fast-paced, complex environment,” she said. “Nurses have to draw on their critical thinking and communication skills.”

Students in the course do extensive work in the College’s new Simulation Center, opened last fall, which replicates a variety of health-care settings, including operating rooms. They also do clinical rotations at hospitals including the University of Chicago, University of Illinois at Chicago, Adventist Hinsdale and Elmhurst Memorial Hospital. Perioperative nurses may function as scrub nurses, working directly with surgeons and selecting and passing instruments during surgery, or as circulating nurses, managing patient care during surgery. During their clinical rotations, Elmhurst students learn directly from surgeons, nurses and other team members, getting lessons in suturing and other tasks, and participating in discussions of best practices. The experience gives them an edge over graduates of other nursing programs seeking jobs in the field.

Westbury was introduced to perioperative nursing as a student at Evangelical School of Nursing in the 1980s. She felt drawn to a career in the operating room after witnessing an open-heart surgery.

“That open heart changed my life,” she said. “In the operating room you have so much autonomy, but also so much responsibility. That patient needs you as an advocate. It felt like a fit for me right away.”

Westbury acknowledged that the operating room isn’t for every nurse.

“It’s not a good place for a quiet person, or a meek person,” she said. “The safety of the patient is utmost and the nurse has to be assertive about that.” But Westbury said that four of the 15 students in last year’s course had chosen to make perioperative nursing their specialty. One is now Westbury’s colleague at Adventist Hinsdale.

LaBudde said the operating room was just one of the settings she would feel comfortable working in after graduation. The trepidation she once felt about surgical was extinguished by her experiences in Westbury’s course and in her clinical rotation.

“I’m so much more confident now,” she said. “And that’s going to benefit me no matter where in the hospital I go.”

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