How to Survive your Surgery Rotation

I can start off by saying I absolutely love this rotation & I am so exhausted (yes, you have both at the same time). The hands on aspect of medicine and procedures are so fun and intriguing for me and I learn best from them.

This is my second rotation and completely different than my last one (cardiology). I have to admit – I’ve had a ton of anxiety about this one. My initial imposter syndrome was SKY HIGH as I have never scrubbed before and didn’t know what was to be expected of me as a third year medical student who started rotations, only four weeks ago.

Picture this: It’s your first day on a new rotation- maybe you were lucky enough to see a surgery previously, but you have never scrubbed. Your only experience is watching all nineteen seasons of Grey’s Anatomy and a scrub lab you attending your second year of medical school. You finally find the right operating room your preceptor told you to meet him at and you anxiously walk into the room and are instantly met with a ton of people walking around, a ton of blue sheets and this feeling in the pit of your stomach like you just walked into a high school lunch room. No one taught you how to navigate this part so you find a spot to stand in the corner ( because you won’t sit on the empty stool because you don’t want to look like you’re not doing anything.) You stand there and take everything in all the while wondering what your role is and waiting for your preceptor to show up like a little kid waiting for a babysitter. Welcome to a majority of medical students on the first day of their infamous surgery rotation. We feel awkward/like we don’t have a spot, don’t want to bother anyone- so we end up stuck in this position of wanting to be helpful, overwhelmed on quite literally where our spot in the OR is, where our spot on the medical team is, questioning what we learned while pouring over First Aid and Anki in the last two years of medical school- because what to do when you walk into an operating room was not in an Anki deck or written in a chapter.

So, you’ve come to the right place because here are 7 helpful tips for a surgery rotation:

  1. First things first: introduce yourself to the OR staff- if I have a dollar for every time I heard someone say “wow, med students just usually sit in the corner” I would be RICH. So, once you see someone has some down time, say hello, who you are and why you’re there. Example: “Hi I’m Jess, I’m the medical student with Dr blah blah blah – also if you need any help please don’t hesitate to ask because I’m an extra set of hands.” Feel free to ask them how long they have been doing their job for and ASK IF THEY NEED HELP. This is where people get a little stuck because they think they can’t do anything to help because they’re just a medical student. Wrong wrong wrong- you can grab your gloves and gown and make a scrub tech’s life easier etc. If you offer, you’re then engaged and less in your head
  2. Remember: these people have been doing this for a long time (most likely longer than your four week surgery rotation). That means- they’re most likely good at their job, look way more competent than you and it’s unfair to compare your first couple of weeks in an OR to a person with a decade of experience!
  3. Show up at least 15 minutes before your attending does
  4. PACK SNACKS AND WATER! If you have watched Grey’s Anatomy- people think a surgery rotation = starvation. That mentality puts you on a nice road to probably passing out in the OR. I pack my lunchbox everyday and leave it in the locker room and steal some snacks/a full meal if I’m lucky in between cases — shoot for something high in protein/low in sugar! Also, watch how much caffeine you’re drinking- if you’re a little nervous, shoot for a little less initially and see how the day goes.
  5. Reading a topic/about the cases ahead of time is a great idea- review the anatomy, the indications (why someone has this surgery). the contraindications (why someone cannot have this surgery), the complications (what can go wrong during/afterwards) – these are all questions a surgeon can pimp you on during the surgery or even after. Plus, it’s good to get your brain thinking so you can ask questions- use UpToDate to start with and even a general google search can get you started if you’re stuck!
  6. Talk to your classmates! If they have had the rotation before or experience- ask them how they handled it, what their tips are. Sometimes it helps to “normalize” some of those feelings so you don’t feel like the only person who decided to learn medicine and are struggling.
  7. Don’t get inside your own head too much- my first couple of days, any time I got an answer wrong or made a mistake I immediately would think wow I am awful at this, thus my perfectionism breeding imposter syndrome. Since then, I have been trying to just give myself room to learn and say it is okay to be wrong and everyone has moments where they are- that allows us to grow. I’ll admit, this habit of thinking is hard to break and takes practice! The kinder you are to yourself, the better your default thinking will be.

Stay tuned for my next post on resources for your surgery rotation as some we’re so useful and a lot cheaper than others!

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