Thursday, October 19, 2017

Curved Surgical Instruments - What's the Deal?

One of the liberties of being "just a  scrub nurse" was the privilege of asking dumb, foolish questions. When there was a lull in surgical action such as waiting for a phone call from pathology or passing  time until an esoteric instrument was flashed,  the time was ripe to pose philosophical queries to the attending surgeon. Surgeons could come up with some convoluted answers to foolish  questions when they were caught off guard. Timing and delivery of the question was the key to obtaining an offbeat answer.

Here is a sampling of some questions I asked in a foolish attempt to resolve the greatest mysteries of the operating room; "Why do cloth shoe covers track blood on the floor a greater distance than new-fangled plastic disposable covers?...  How normal is 0.9 saline?... Can you sleep on a mattress suture?... and perhaps the ultimate question... "Why is the working end of many surgical instruments curved?"
Four lovely curved clamps in the foreground with the tips arching forward. A pair of straight Allis forceps, straight  hemostats, and a lone, proud Babcock sitting in the background. An obscure visual treasure of glimmering stainless steel enhanced with graceful arching curves, glowing in the brilliant overhead light of the tiled temple. The astounding beauty of those gracefully curved clamps surrounded by the deep sky blue surgical  towel is so easy to overlook while we live out our remaining days craving the cheap balm of a glowing screen. Hmm.. Maybe I could scrub for just one more case.😃




Here are some candid responses straight from the surgeon's masked mouth: "Instruments are curved to match the curve of the human hand....Because that is the way it's done Fool, now hand me a sponge stick and get back to work...There are no straight lines to be found in nature; that's why instruments are curved... Curved instruments have greater utility and are more useful."  That last answer probably made the most sense, but it's still not an elaborate rationale for instrument curves.

With the luxury of time to think about it and lots of experience watching curved instruments in action here is  my foolish explanation. When cutting with a straight bladed scissors the operators hand is directly in-line with the direction of the cut. This can obscure the view of the cutting activity. Curved scissors place the operating hand at a 30-45 degree angle (depending on the acuteness of the curve) to the area being cut, providing an unobscured view. Curved needle holders drivers as you whippersnapperrns call them, follow the same principle.

When using just about any hinged surgical instrument the opposable thumb is moved away from the index finger when spreading the jaws or blades, in the case of scissors.  It takes physical space to accommodate this thumb/index finger span. Curved instruments create an angle to move the hand above the area of work providing room for the necessary finger span. A long handled, curved instrument allows the surgeon to work in some very deep wounds such as encountered with obese patients.

Retractors have gracefully curved blades to distribute pressure over a wide area to minimize trauma. Wrapping those blades with saline soaked lap sponges helps too.  I believed that aggressive retraction caused as much trauma as any blade. Whenever a resident was pulling back so hard on a retractor that he assumed the position of a water skier, tissues were being stretched to the limit. Aggressive retraction always bugged me. Surgery should not resemble a taffy pull.

Old school nurses had the responsibility to ensure surgical instruments were in proper working order. If a surgeon encountered a  hemostat or needle driver with misaligned jaws, it was his prerogative to "fix" the offending instrument by opening it up and bending one arm up and the other down. Instruments that had been curved via this "repair" were rendered useless and thrown into the trash where they belonged. Curves, in this case, served to identify a non-functioning piece of equipment.




Friday, October 13, 2017

A Friday the 13th Foreign Body Mishap??

What does this X-ray reveal?  Looks like the scrub
nurse was preoccupied by counting sponges and over-
looked keeping track of the instruments. That looks
just like a straight Mayo scissors at waist level







Foreign body false alarm. That's just an x-ray of a student
nurse in uniform toting scissors in the standard location.
When a snip was needed, student nurses could pull those
scissors out faster than an outlaw cowboy could draw a
six shooter.



Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Thorazine - An Old Fashioned Cure-All

Thorazine was thought of as a revolutionary breakthrough medication similar to Penicillin when the FDA approved it's use in the early 1950's. It was the very first psychiatric medication useful in the treatment of schizophrenia. Before Thorazine,  institutions used leather restraints, alternating cold and hot body packs and of course crude psychosurgery such as lobotomy.

In a bizzare side note Freud never received the Nobel prize for his work, but the fellow with that ice pick brain surgery  got the call from Sweeden to come pick up his Nobel prize for lobotomy. Efforts to recall this Nobel have been unsuccessful.

Thorazine was discovered while searching for a cure for malaria and worked by blocking dopamine receptors  in the brain - a chemical lobotomy. After Thorazine disables the dopamine receptors all sorts of bad things happen. Blocking dopamine does blunt the psychosis, but fooling around with neurotransmitters never has a happy ending. Akathesia (constant uncontrolled restlessness,) sustained muscle sasms leading to a debilitating constant muscle activity called tardive dyskinesia. I always thought of Thorazine as the equivalent of weeding a garden with a hand grenade. Sure the psychosis was blunted, but so was everything else that made the person an individual. These people were mere shells of human beings. The reeks and wrecks found on the backward of any long term psych hospital were not there only for their psychosis. The institutionalization and side effects of long term phenothiazine therapy were at fault too.

Thorazine was supplied in a wide range of dosage forms including;  syrup,  concentrate, injectable vials and even suppositories.  On my first medication passing adventure at Downey VA I had a med card that indicated the patient was to receive 2000mg of Thorazine concentrate. I was taught the maximum dose was around 200 mg. How could a patient receive 2 grams of this potent tranquilizer and survive? I was told this was the correct dose and the patient acquired a tolerance over the decades and to go ahead and give it. The patient shuffled up to the med room, gulped it down and went about his business. Simply amazing.

Some of the long term Thorazine concentrate consumers requested the nasty tasting substance "straight."  This meant giving the drug in a small medicine cup diluted with just a splash of tap water. The concentrate turned a brilliant shade of pink when the water was added and this was long before the color was associated with cancer survivors. Thorazine concentrate was just plain nasty smelling. Cracking that big brown tinted bottle unleashed a scent not unlike the Testors glue that I used as a youngster to assemble plastic model kits. We usually diluted it in a thick sugary substance called simply "citric." I doubted this tactic made it any more palatable, but at least it knocked some of the unpleasant smell down.

There is ample truth to the old adage that when there are 3 or more treatments for the same condition, none of them are effective. The pharmacologic corollary- If one drug is used to treat multiple divergent illnesses; it's not an effective drug. Here is an interesting hodge-podge of ailments that Thorazine was purported to cure in 1950s ads. A foolish panacea if I do say so.


Hmm.. this might just work. Snow him on Thorazine and see if he makes it to the bar.

I wonder if her "serene detachment" persisted through the muscle spasms of tardive dyskinesia.



In my experience, Thorazine induced rapid, shallow respirations-not sure how well this would play out for asthmatics.

Thorazine was known for it's hypotensive actions. Throw in an old time general
anesthetic with a Thorazine pre-op and watch the B/P drop like a lead balloon.

Wow.. never realized Thorazine was such a miracle drug with an assortment of therapeutic applications. It did work well for nausea in small doses of 25mg, but patients never asked for a repeat dose. I always asked post-op patients if their nausea was relieved by the small dose of Thorazine and their reply was always something to the effect that it worked but made their mouth very dry and induced a profound malaise and general feeling of unwellness. "Don't give that to me again!" was a frequent request.

When drugs are touted as having so many uses I suspect it's because they don't work too well for anything. Of course this lesson has been well learned and would never happen today. HeHe.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Las Vegas Massacre

Despite a rigidly enforced news blackout in my household, the really bad events have a way of surfacing. When I heard hundreds of people were victims of gunshot wounds in Las Vegas  the logistics of treating this much trauma boggled my mind.

Three gunshot wounds were enough to wreak havoc in our busy Chicago OR. We used to mark preop X-rays with paper clips in a usually futile attempt to track trajectory. Projectiles can bounce or tumble after striking bone. The deflected path is difficult to assess. A box of paperclips lasted for years in the old time OR. I wonder if CT scans have eliminated the paper clip markers, but it's painful to think how many paper clips would be needed for hundreds of people.

The aftermath of mass shootings is becoming well scripted. The shooter is characterized as a psychotic madman which further unfairly stigmatizes the mentally ill. Politicians praise first responders and express sympathy for the victims. I heard one senator said it was to early in the investigation to consider legislative solutions. What more investigation is needed after learning the extent of the slaughter.

The gun rights folks will cite the second amendment which was crafted in an age of muzzle loaded weapons which took time to reload. I don't think our forefathers envisioned wide distribution of  rapid fire assault type weapons, but gun folks might allude to the notion that it's a price that must be paid for freedom.

I wish folks could see how powerful guns are when bullets meet human flesh. Tiny entrance wounds give way to shredded small bowel and lacerated livers. If shooters knew how tired hands get loading hundreds of needle drivers or counting pack after pack of  4X4s they might see things differently.

I am so sorry for the victims and cannot fathom how surgeons and nurses could treat so much trauma.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Surgical Instrument Identification Marking

"Fetch me one of those thingamajigs
with the red and black marking tape"
Carbon based lifeforms have had a fascination with placing marks on things that has evolved over countless millenia. Dogs and cats spray urine and bears strip bark and arrange tree leaves in unique patterns as a marking technique. Homo sapiens of the office sitting operating room  administrative ilk are fond of putting their mark on surgical instruments. See that elegant arrangement of  Germany's finest  set of  VMueller surgical instruments (above)  all decked out with tacky  little identifying bands. I think the green/yellow, red/black tape markings look  worse than a dog spraying a fire hydrant with urine. Marking surgical instruments is a crude way for administrative busy bodies  to seek control over a situation that they have no business fooling around with.


It's not too hard to figure out the marking behavior of dogs, cats and bears, but to find the motivation for  defacing marking surgical instruments we have to delve into the mindset of misguided individuals who likely have rarely set foot in an operating room. How about this gem from an instrument defacing  marking advocate?  "Marking surgical instruments corrects the lack of process visibility and identification for all perioperative stake-holders."

I guess this is a convoluted way of saying you cannot tell what something is just by looking at it or using it. It's not all that difficult to learn the nomenclature of surgical instruments and have a general idea of how the instrument is used. A Penfield is a Penfield because that's what it is. The black and red tape is not what gives an instrument it's identity. So the instrument is the instrument, ineffable, a well defined entity completely independent of the strips of colored tape applied on the whim of an administrative wisenheimer.   If you are working in the perioperative arena and don't know the identity of your instruments, the only steak you should be holding is a T-bone.

"We mark our instruments so as to organize them into sets for a specific case. Green/black markings mean the instrument is part of the fem-pop bypass tray," said nursing supervisor, Mary Marks-a-Lot
This is wrong headed thinking of the highest order. The surgery determines the type of instrument used not the instrument determining  the surgery. The tail is wagging the dog with case specific instrument trays and the circulating nurse  will be running like a whippet to the nearest autoclave to flash sterilize the instruments you really need for unexpected circumstances. I often fantasized about instrument marking misfits standing directly in front of the autoclave when I suddenly cracked the door after a flash sterilization cycle. Maybe a blast of scalding steam to their sensory regions would bring them to their senses.

Instruments used in case specific trays are also more subject to wear and tear because they are used in the same manner time after time. For maximum instrument life it's best to use them on a rotating basis with different cases through varying services. Auto mechanics don't have a breaker bar just for working on struts - they use it wherever it's needed. Surgical instruments should be used as needed and not assigned to a case specific use.

Scrub nurses have enough to keep track of; sponges, needles, and instruments. an additional duty of inspecting each instrument for loose or missing tape is stretching the limit. ID tape is just one more unnecessary worry for a harried nurse.

Microorganisms are crafty little devils and I suspect they could use the ID markings as a sort of shield to escape the unpleasant effects of gas or heat sterilization. I always suspected that tape margin where it interfaces with the instrument surface as an area for assorted biomass crud build-up. Instruments just look cleaner without identification tape.

I usually tried to avoid pharmaceutical reps and medical equipment sales people like the plague. The very reserved German fellow that represented VMueller instruments was a source of information and a true expert on the care and feeding of surgical instruments. He summed up my feelings perfectly when he surveyed an instrument tray with ID tapes plastered on his beautiful product, "Dumkopfs!" he hollered followed by some German cuss words He did not have to explain who or what he was referring to while I nodded my head in somber agreement.


Monday, September 18, 2017

Nurse Motivators - Paying a Debt

Intraoperative X-rays meant the gowned and gloved were huddled face-to-face behind that protective lead curtain off in a distant corner. Personal space dissipated more rapidly than Bovie smoke as we sought to guard our gamete giving gonads from gamma rays. (Whew... I was able to stop myself this time before that darned alliteration got out of control.)  I found myself  squeezed into an eyeball to neck position with Alana, the young student nurse I was mentoring. I could not curtail my stares to her neck and sub-mandible.

Now that was one impressive mass of scar tissue stretching from her clavicle and encircling her neck before terminating just below her jaw. A matrix of jagged spider web like connective tissue stacked as if one web was piled  on top of another. I started to ponder what her skin graft donor sites looked like. Despite her sunny demeanor she had been through some significant suffering. Every minor turn of her head against that scar tissue looked like an activity resembling a taffy pull. No wonder she rotated her entire upper torso when scanning the operative field.

As I briefly pondered the backstory here, our eyes made contact and I quickly diverted my gaze, wondering if I should apologize for my crude fixed gaze. Maybe I could come up with a foolish excuse blaming it on the X-ray and being forced to position myself eyeball to neck. I never was known as a very subtle person and it was probably time for some soul searching. Maybe I could make it up to her by teaching her how to load a sponge stick one-handed. She was one of the most gung ho students I worked with.

After the case in the OR lounge I was bumbling and stumbling through a summary of the case while complimenting Alana on doing so well. When I  started my uncomfortable mumbling regarding  the indication for the intraoperative X-ray she sensed my uneasiness and simply replied, " The burn injury happened on a camping trip near the Wisconsin Dells when I was 8 years old. The fuel tank on the cookstove leaked and sprayed me with burning fuel. The nurses on the burn unit at County saved my life and I always felt in debt to them for their skill and many kindnesses. I decided to be a nurse on the day I walked out of that hospital."

Student nurses had diverse motivations for studying nursing, but decades ago it's a fact that money was not one of them.  Alana's motivation was pure and simple, she was repaying a debt and it had nothing to do with remuneration.

How it became a debt for Alana is  not too hard to understand. She felt the nurses on the burn unit at County gave her life back and she owed that much to others. In a fictional account, Alana would return to the County Burn Unit upon graduation and care for patients she could  directly identify with.

The truth of the matter - Alana really like OR nursing and made that a career choice. Whenever I was weary or cynical with negativity barking at my heals, Alana's pure and simple motivation set me straight. As long as I was still vertical on the outside of the siderails, I owed a debt too. It brought tears to my foolish eyes when Alana related she decided to become an OR nurse after her very first scrub-in which happened to be with me.

As time passed, I tried to watch Alana in action every chance I had. Her hands were half the size of mine, but the way she spun a curved instrument in midair to pass it to either side of the table or police her Mayo stand was a mirror image of my technique. We even cut ligatures and wringed out lap sponges the exact same way. I simply loved watching her scrubbed and I never stared at her scar again.
 .

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Tonsillectomy According to Peter Ponsil

This cheery little musical interlude from the 1950's starts out with a chipper chorus of "Have you heard of Peter Ponsil?" A jaunty xylophone riff with breezy notes ascending and descending reinforces the carefree, whimsical mood.  Pete himself then chimes in with an upbeat tale of having his tonsils ripped out removed by the good ol' Dr. Sneeze&Blow. A pretty nurse cheerfully dressing the patient in a "Johnny Coat" also is described in Pete's upbeat, sing-song voice. It's an engaging little song that I hear repeating in the back of my head when I'm engaging some high minded activity like watching the Three Stooges. It was played for us in grade school as part of health class and it stuck with me all these years.

It's probably one of the pioneers in patient education, but the rosy picture it painted of tonsillectomy was bending the truth more than a triffle. Pediatric patients were told many half truths and outright fibs to gain their cooperation. Every old peds nurse knows that sneaky  trick of telling little Peter Ponsil that it's time to check his temperature and then administering a painful intramuscular injection. That old Vistaril pre-op shot used to burn like a branding iron  Misleading youngsters to gain their cooperation was just plain wrong, but I never had much of a say with older nurses.

Peter Ponsil conveniently neglected to mention some of the complications and post op pain discomfort associated with tonsillectomy. The procedure involved outlining the margins of the tonsil with a #15 blade, looping a snare around the offending tonsil and squeezing the mini beartrap of a snare closed to finish the -ectomy.

The most unusual complication I witnessed involved removing the uvula along with a tonsil. The surgeon told the family not to worry because the little thing hanging down in the back of the throat was unnecessary and just got in the way. He was half right - it did indeed get in the way of his snare.

Another youngster had to make an emergent trip back to the OR for a bronchoscopy because the eschar sloughed off a tonsillectomy wound and lodged in his  right main stem bronchus. I think our friend Peter Ponsil would be singing a different tune post-bronchoscopy.

Our pediatric unit was divided into 3 separate wards: pre-op, post-op, and isolation which was affectionately known as the diarrhea ward. The unsuspecting kids in pre-op frolicked about in their Johnny Coats consumed by blissful ignorance courtesy of Peter Ponsil and his ilk. Post-op was where the reality of the situation reared it's ugly head. Kids howling in pain suddenly aware of how deceitful their friend, Pete, had been. The more rambunctious were even restrained on papoose boards. Peter Ponsil was a spin doctor of the highest order.

There was a great deal of deception in old school healthcare and Peter Ponsil bunches it all up in his little song that represents an entourage of  hospital falsehoods. From nurses telling patients that a Bicillin injection would feel like a mosquito bite to surgeons obscuring an ominous finding, half truths and outright deception was everywhere. The pain word was beclouded by referring to it as discomfort. Of course this was all done for the patient's own good.