Report from the Operating Room

Published on January 9, 2017 by
Ellen in OR

I used to think the operating room would be a scary kind of place with a lot of formality, sternness and lives’ constantly in teetering balance.  Makes me wonder sometimes how I even got into surgery with that image blazed in my mind! My first experience with ‘operating’ took place in Tanzania, East Africa.  I was in my mid to late 20’s with my Master’s degree and had a job introducing basic health care measures to the tribes of that region, particularly the Maasai.  The Maasai are a very proud regal people and I was privileged to be in that role.

I was awed by their courage and lifestyle and learned that this placed them in dangerous situations, incurring serious injuries from lion maulings, inter-tribal warfare as well as the consequences of poor healthcare practices. At one point, one of the regional surgeons became ill and his partner asked if I would ‘stand in’ to assist him.  In the wild world of Tanzania, at that time, an operating room was wherever the patient happened to be.  I was so enthralled by the novelty of the circumstances and the view of a body from the inside out, that I quickly became hooked on the idea of surgery as a future profession.  After all, who wouldn’t want to have the capacity to heal and bring good will to such an untamed world and such regal people?

Flash forward a decade plus to the rigors of the USA and Ivy league training.  My first experience here was entirely different!  As a resident at UPenn, I had been up since 4am on rounds and prepped on what to expect on my first day in the OR, although there was not much prepping in those days.  Memorable moments include the ice-cold air, wishing that I had eaten a bigger breakfast, being criticized for a pearl necklace, surrounded by a lot of very tall serious men, washing my hands and arms with betadine (which seemed to go on for hours) and being layered in an oversized hot gown, giant hat and very tight gloves.  I walked into the OR, saw a large nude man buck naked on the table and promptly keeled over — I’m not kidding!  I still hear about that day.

It’s been interesting to appreciate how experience, repetition and confidence have changed me after these years.  I expect the unexpected and understand that in the operating room there is one leader and that’s me.  My role can only be successful with the help and commitment of a team of people who know me, anticipate my next step, move quickly to a unique beat that I set and find the rhythm exciting enough to want to join in the dance of matched steps, turns and interludes of duets.

In thinking about this blog, I looked up some old articles written about me and would like to add this apropos quote from the book, The Power to Heal, and the chapter on Women Who Heal: Power to Heal book

Once I had someone’s life in my hands,” says Dr. Ellen Mahony left, who started her career in health as a physical therapist, “I knew surgery was for me.  It’s a dance.  You move quickly, constantly.  When you put your hand out and the instrument hits it, there’s a distinct smack.  When you’re with someone you work with well, everything flows.” “I hate to hear someone refer to a ‘routine operation,’” she adds.  “Nothing is routine. No two problems are ever the same.” I maintain that good surgery takes good ‘dancing’ with a team that moves to the beat.  I have never stopped loving my time in the OR and relish those moments greatly.   I’m blessed with my team at Norwalk Hospital and would lay down that they’re some of the best dancers out there!