CN surgical tech graduates give back to program
W.W. Hastings Hospital Surgical Technology Program instructors Rochelle Lewis, left, and Cheryl Gullett use a dummy and surgical tools to illustrate the environment a certified surgical technologist, or CST, will face in the operating room. BRITTNEY BENNETT/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Rochelle Lewis, a W.W. Hastings Hospital Surgical Technology Program instructor, sorts through surgical clamps, each with a different name and use. Certified surgical technologists must memorize the names and uses for hundreds of surgical tools to assist surgeons. BRITTNEY BENNETT/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Rochelle Lewis, a W.W. Hastings Hospital Surgical Technology Program instructor, holds two surgical clamps for comparison. While two instruments may look the same, the striations inside can drastically change how it is used and on which part of the body it is used. BRITTNEY BENNETT/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
The W.W. Hastings Hospital Surgical Technology Program is 9-1/2 months and consists of classroom bookwork and clinicals at Oklahoma and Arkansas sites. The Cherokee Nation pays for all program materials that students need, including books and scrubs. BRITTNEY BENNETT/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Since its 2009 inception, several of the 41 W.W. Hastings Hospital Surgical Technology Program graduates have returned to the Cherokee Nation, committed to helping provide fellow Cherokees health care.
One graduate is Rochelle Lewis, a certified surgical technologist who completed the program in 2011. She spent four years at Northeastern Health Systems, formerly Tahlequah City Hospital, before returning in 2015 to teach the program.
“I think it’s imperative for me to be able to go back and help my fellow Cherokees, to be there in a time where they are most vulnerable,” Lewis said. “We are the eagle eye to make sure that a patient has the most healthy outcome possible. I think being able to do that for fellow Cherokees is a great responsibility and a great privilege.”
The CST’s responsibilities are providing patient support in the operating room, gathering operating supplies, keeping count of supplies used, overseeing the operating room’s sterilization and handing surgeons surgical tools.
The program is 9-1/2 months and conducts two classes annually. Each class admits five students.
“It’s really nice to have that size of class,” Lewis said. “If they get into this program, it’s an extreme privilege because of how hard it is to get in. We don’t have a lot of space, but we get lots of one-on-one with them.”
Entrance is based upon points earned by taking a dexterity test, completing an entrance exam, writing an essay, completing a personal interview and attending a skills lab “boot camp.”
Once admitted, students earn a $7.25 hourly stipend and spend the first five months in the classroom before moving to clinicals. During clinicals, they see patients at 10 sites in Oklahoma and Arkansas for two to three weeks at each site.
“When they go to clinicals, the first day we say to them ‘you can watch one surgery to get the feel of it,’ and then we expect them to start being as hands on as possible,” Lewis said. “They should be scrubbing in and setting up cases the first week. For accreditation they have to get so many cases in different specialties.”
The final month is spent preparing for the national certification exam, which is four hours and has 200 questions. To become certified, 118 questions must be answered correctly.
“You need to be dedicated,” Cheryl Gullett, a fellow CST and program instructor, said. “This has to be a number one priority. Students have to treat it as a job, if not a little more seriously.”
Gullett graduated in 2010 and worked for Northeastern Health Systems and St. John’s Hospital before returning to instruct in 2015.
She said the program’s financial impact on graduates is also important.
“I think the program in general is an amazing thing because you’re not only providing health care to people, but you’re providing a substantial amount of income to yourself,” Gullett said. “When these students graduate, they have a job that can provide for their families. You don’t need subsidies to help you survive anymore.”
That was the case for CN citizen Baron O’Field, a CST who graduated in 2013.
“Before I was a surgical tech, I worked as an intern for the Cherokee Nation,” he said. “I was in that position for about three years, so there was really no place for me to advance. I was kind of just stuck at that minimum wage gap.”
When O’Field neared graduation, he had job offers from Northeastern Health Systems and Hastings, where he worked for nearly two years before working as a traveling CST.
“It was a great experience to leave and come back and share some of my knowledge. I think it has helped me a lot. Situations that I would have gotten into early on in my career here, I would have been nervous and kind of intimidated. Now, it’s not that big of a deal,” he said.
He said his time as a traveling CST in Missouri, Kansas and Ohio also helped illustrate the need for more Native Americans in health careers.
“I know whenever I left I never came across another Cherokee as a traveler, or just another Native American period,” he said. “I know I did go to a place where there was a high population of Native Americans, but I never bumped into (a CST).”
As the profession grows, O’Field hopes more Cherokees will serve in it. “If you have a good work ethic and you’re willing to learn and adapt, I think any hospital in America is going to hire you.”
For more information, call Patricia Sumner at 918-453-5000, ext. 4186 or Lewis at 918-453-5000, ext. 4178.