Operating Room Confidential: What Really Goes On When You Go Under [NOOK Book]


Written by an anesthesiologist, this insider’s account takes the reader on a journey that unveils the way hospitals work and offers important information about surgeries and the surgeons that perform them. Personal stories combine with staff experiences to reveal hidden truths about the operating room and illustrate the quirky, strange, and bizarre occurrences that shape a regular hospital day. Answering questions such as What do doctors talk about during surgery? If a surgical instrument falls to the floor, is...
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Operating Room Confidential: What Really Goes On When You Go Under

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Written by an anesthesiologist, this insider’s account takes the reader on a journey that unveils the way hospitals work and offers important information about surgeries and the surgeons that perform them. Personal stories combine with staff experiences to reveal hidden truths about the operating room and illustrate the quirky, strange, and bizarre occurrences that shape a regular hospital day. Answering questions such as What do doctors talk about during surgery? If a surgical instrument falls to the floor, is the five-second rule observed? and Is real life just like ER, Grey’s Anatomy, and House?, this is a must-read for the curiosity seeker and anyone who has or will be on the operating-room table.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Fact-filled, poignant, and funny."  —Booklist Online

"Highly informative and honest, Dr Paul Whang weaves his narrative together to create an extremely witty, sometimes controversial, concoction. Upon opening this book, you will draw back the curtain, and enter the operating theatre."  —Dr. Jerome Edelstein, Toronto plastic surgeon

"The operating room is the most mysterious and intimidating of inner sanctums and the creatures who operate in it seem equally mysterious. Paul Whang humanizes and illuminates that fearsome space with candour, humour and a generosity of spirit that gives readers the sense that should they ever find themselves on the table, the experience will work out well."  —Robin Roger, managing editor, Ars Medica: A Journal of Medicine, The Arts and Humanities

"Eye-opening and full of personality."  —Scene Magazine

"If you enjoy workplace anecdotes, you'll enjoy Operating Room Confidential . . . It contains roughly equal measures of anecdotes and advice, a 21st century turn on the spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down."  —Waterloo Region Record

"Gives us an insider's view of the operating room. The reader enters a fascinating realm of fears, foibles, and the truths of human nature. This is honest writing from a doctor who observes carefully and shares what he sees from behind the surgical mask."  —Dr. Vincent Lam, author, Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures

Booklist Online
Fact-filled, poignant, and funny.
Scene Magazine
Eye-opening and full of personality.
Waterloo Region Record
If you enjoy workplace anecdotes, you'll enjoy Operating Room Confidential ... It contains roughly equal measures of anecdotes and advice, a 21st century turn on the spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down.
Library Journal
Fear of the mysterious world of sleep is a primordial emotion, as new parents quickly learn. Though few would deny that anesthesia is a true blessing of the modern world, the thought of surrendering to it provokes long-buried anxieties. Whang, a hospital anesthetist in Toronto, attempts to soothe these worries with an informative and lively guide to his profession and the hermetic world of the operating room in which he practices. Writing for a general audience, Whang discusses his experiences as an anesthetist for a wide range of procedures. He tells tales out of school of surgeries gone awry, the operating room pecking order, surgeons' choice of music and superstitions, and even some medical students' rite of passage, operating-room sex. Though he plays a supporting actor to the surgeon in the drama of an operation, Whang has years of observing patients' vital signs, and these must have made him a perceptive observer of hospital life. One entertaining chapter discusses research on the Myers-Briggs classifications of various medical specialists. Whang also offers practical information for potential patients on what to look for in a good surgeon and what to expect in the recovery room, and he answers the FAQs of his patients facing surgery. VERDICT This book provides a distinctive view of a medical specialty little known by the general public. Although the author's genial style and professional expertise make for an engaging read, his book could be better organized into a coherent narrative.—Kathy Arsenault, St. Petersburg, FL
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781554902095
  • Publisher: ECW Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2010
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 200
  • Sales rank: 1,326,865
  • File size: 277 KB

Meet the Author

Paul Whang, MD, is an anesthesiologist and a hospital consultant. A graduate of the University of Toronto, where he won the Thomas-Kendrick Gold Medal in pharmacology, and of the McMaster Medical School, he has been in practice for more than 15 years. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.

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Read an Excerpt


What Really Goes on When You Go Under

By Paul Whang


Copyright © 2010 Paul Whang
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55490-209-5



The operating room is the heart of the hospital where dramatic events and major, life-altering decisions occur. I'm sure that most people have no idea about some of the strange, unusual and unexpected events that occur here. You can watch shows like ER, Grey's Anatomy and House and think you know what's going on — but in fact you really don't.

I'm going to describe what working in the operating room is truly like. Hopefully, I can help you experience the operating room from a different perspective.

For many, a trip to the operating room is a frightening experience. You're going "under the knife," facing the unknown.

But I want to reassure you that you'll be cared for by an experienced team that is intimately acquainted with the routines and rhythms of the O.R. And though some team members may have unusual personalities and follow what may seem to be strange rituals, they have a lot of pride in their work and will care for you to the best of their abilities.

Every department in the hospital strives to attain the accepted "Standards of Care." In the O.R., the goals are not just to attain, but to exceed those standards — not only because we are directly responsible for people's lives, but also because it's what most of us demand from ourselves in our work. It may seem trite, but it is true — the operating room is the beating heart of the hospital.


Each day starts with the act of going into the locker room to change into surgical greens. Like a hockey player who puts his jersey and equipment on before a game, we prepare for a day in surgery by donning greens, slipping on the surgical cap and tying the mask.

O.R. greens are not designed for comfort or style. If you're not of average height or build, they definitely won't fit well. Their function is to keep you clean and relatively cool. There was a time, working as a resident at a downtown teaching hospital, when the greens weren't separate tops and bottoms, but were composed of a single jumpsuit. Male residents loved these jumpsuits, because they titillated us with the deep V that exposed the cleavage of female residents, who struggled to cover up. We couldn't fail to notice how tightly these suits hugged their bodies. Our eyes were very adept at outlining the braless attributes of certain classmates.


A buzz of activity starts each morning, as the nurses in each room prepare for the day's surgeries. Pre-wrapped surgical instruments, specialized solutions and sheets of synthetic fibers that act as barriers to infection, called surgical drapes, are opened on sanitized stainless steel trays.

Because of the complexity of modern surgery and the myriad instruments used during each procedure, one is almost assured that some instrument will be missing or mistakenly substituted. This inevitably causes a delay in the proceedings. Curse-filled and panic-stricken calls from each operating room to spd (Sterile Processing Department) ensure the proper instruments are sent up immediately.

I always find it curious that many surgical instruments are named after dead surgeons. Instead of "blunt-ended suction," it's called a Yankauer. In place of the "three-fingered clawed retractor," we use a Senn-Miller. I suppose it's an honor to have a surgical instrument that has saved many lives named after you, like a Balfour Retractor or Allis Forceps. And it's certainly easier to ask for the Balfour Retractor than the "adjustable self-retaining retractor with fenestrated side blades."

Despite the honor, there are certain instruments I'd rather not have my name associated with — I'm not sure how Dr. Pratt really felt about the Pratt Rectal Speculum.

However, I shouldn't make light of names. On a personal note, when I was beginning my anesthesia practice, I asked Dr. Robert Stubbs if I could work in his private cosmetic clinic. Dr. Stubbs is well known in the plastic surgery world as one of the first doctors who began penis enlargement surgery in North America.

"Wow, your name is Dr. Whang. Did you know that I learned the technique of penis enlargement in China with ... and I'm not kidding ... with Drs. Long and Dong. So you can just see my advertisement: Penis enlargement surgery with Dr. Stubbs. Trained by Drs. Long and Dong. Anesthesia by Dr. Whang."

I didn't get the job.


Operating room nurses are obviously a vital part of the O.R. team. There is currently an extreme shortage of qualified nurses in all areas of the hospital because there are an insufficient number of nurses coming up through the ranks — and this is especially evident in the O.R. Many of the most experienced nurses will be retiring within the next five to ten years. Some hospitals are filling these positions with nurses from other countries. One hospital is hiring nurses from the Philippines, while another hospital is employing many Russian nurses, yet another hospital is hiring Indian nurses and so on. In fact, most of us in North America should be feeling some guilt because we're depriving other countries of these caring and highly competent professionals.

I've observed two notable consequences of hiring foreign-trained healthcare workers at our hospitals. First, potluck lunch selections are now wonderful: succulent Ad Bong Baboy (chunks of pork cooked in soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, pepper and bay leaf) from the Philippines, wholesome Russian Lekeh (a honey pastry with raisins and walnuts) and tasty Indian Kalcha (bread made with flour, potatoes, onions, spices and butter).

Second, there is a new operating room vernacular — specimen bottle becomes spacemen bootle, clamp becomes clemp, and room changeover is now room chenga over. It's an adjustment for everyone.

The addition of nurses from different ethnic backgrounds has significantly changed the O.R. from its days of meat and potatoes and Queen's English. It has significantly spiced up both the lunchroom and the local vernacular.

Many people in North America don't consider a nursing career in the operating room appealing. First, some don't believe they can stand the blood and guts of operations — though in truth, only a small percentage of people can't tolerate it — and I have known a few who fainted observing their first operation and then went on to enjoy fulfilling operating room careers.

Some think that nursing in general doesn't pay well. The dearth of available nurses has emphasized their importance and recent contract agreements have significantly increased incomes.

The sway nurses have in the O.R. is changing every day. More nurses are training to become surgical assistants and fill manpower gaps in place of doctors. I've seen veteran nurses teach and advise doctors how to correctly set up and use new O.R. instruments since they often have more exposure and experience with the equipment than some surgeons.

The new rules instituting a safety checklist in the operating room, that must be followed before surgery can begin, reinforce the fundamental principle of teamwork, encourage us to look out for each other and stress the equal importance of every member in the team. In the past, I've seen warnings from experienced nurses prevent disaster. Unfortunately, advice ignored has resulted in some dangerously close calls. It's folly not to listen to an experienced voice in the O.R. In the old days, perhaps 30 to 40 years ago, doctors' treatment of nurses was sometimes abusive. At that time surgeons were considered to be the gods of the O.R. There were no policies to prevent and condemn bullying. There are legendary stories about doctors' raging tantrums and verbal tirades when things didn't go well. Doctors threw sponges and instruments, including scalpels, across the room ... sometimes at others.

An older colleague recounted a good illustration of this behavior to me. A foul-mouthed bully of a surgeon was working with a veteran scrub nurse. During the surgery, he repeatedly demanded the wrong instruments from the nurse — for example, he'd ask for sutures when he wanted a scalpel. He blamed these errors on the nurse. "You should know what I need during the operation," he yelled. "How many times have you seen this operation? Give me what I need, not what I ask for!"

Finally, after being handed another "incorrect" scalpel, in self-righteous disgust he tossed it at her. She shifted back and it flew past her. Without hesitation, she immediately grabbed another scalpel from the instrument tray, cocked her wrist and deftly threw it at him — it whizzed just past his right eye, jangling onto the floor behind him. The O.R. was silent as the doctor stared at the nurse, his eyes wide with shock and fear. After this brief pause, the surgery resumed.

Little did he know that she was a competitive dart champion.

In the end, there were no complaints filed by either nurse or surgeon; back then, things just weren't done that way. And neither uttered a word to each other about the incident.

But the surgeon never threw a surgical instrument at anyone again.

The Scrub

Nurses, surgeons and surgical assistants begin the scrub at the sinks just outside the O.R. "Scrubbing" is a ritual application of sterilizing soap solutions lasting at least five minutes, during which the definition of "clean" nails and hands achieves a standard that even Mom would appreciate. After finishing your scrub, you're not allowed to touch anything unsterile. Inevitably, the most exasperating itches seem to occur on the nose or eyes just after the hands are scrubbed, forcing people to beg others to scratch the offending area for them. If no one is available, you witness an odd sight — people desperately rubbing their faces against I.V. (intravenous) poles, tables or other sharp objects.

Surgically Clean

Of course, infection is the scourge of the O.R. Every attempt is made to prevent the introduction of bacteria, viruses and spores into or near surgical wounds. Sterility is an obsession.

"Surgically clean" means that even the slightest sneeze directed at the instruments, or even the simple suspicion of an unwashed hand grazing the corner of a surgical tray demands a replacement of the entire set. The touch of an unsterilized finger could deposit hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of microbes on an instrument, leading to a potentially life-threatening infection if deposited within the body.

And so, you can see there's definitely no adherence to the "five-second rule" for instruments that accidently fall to the floor.

For the germ-phobic obsessive-compulsive and other neurotic types of people who work in the operating room, these standards are perfect. It's as close to "Clean Nirvana" as it gets.

Waiting for the Call

Patients sit in the preoperative holding area, worrying and waiting to be called for surgery. Medical histories have been reviewed, with identification and allergy bands fastened to wrists. They shiver nervously under their flimsy gowns.

Many are surprised by how thin and revealing these gowns are. The old "Johnny gown" had the strings tied from behind leaving the back and buttock bare. Newer kimono-style gowns are better, but can still be revealing. Men who've never worn dresses are frequently guilty of exposing themselves. Large, hairy male patients sit oblivious, with legs spread wide apart, or ankle resting upon the opposite knee, groins uncovered, while seated opposite female patients who squirm uncomfortably, heads and bodies turned abruptly away to avoid seeing the genitalia on display. Believe me, it's happened on more than a few occasions.

People are given blankets to keep warm. Some wear them like shawls, loosely draped over shoulders. Others wrap them around their necks like scarves. There's even a small group that cover their heads, as if wanting to disappear and hide under cloaks. But many just leave the folded blankets unused upon their laps. These blankets should be used by the patient to keep as warm as possible. It's been shown that raising your temperature before surgery helps keep you warm during and after the operation. Even mild drops in temperature during and after an operation have been shown to significantly increase the risk of infection, blood loss or heart complications and prolong recovery room times.

The surgeon visits the patient just before surgery to mark the correct side with an "X" and answer any outstanding questions. After having already spent long detailed sessions in the office explaining the reasons for surgery, techniques and possible complications, there is sometimes a pained and exasperated look upon the surgeon's face when the patient asks: "Doc, tell me again — what are you going to do to me today?"

The Atmosphere

What about the tense atmosphere of the operating room among the nurses, surgeon and anesthetist? Between the sterility issues and the technical demands on the staff, you can often cut the tension in the air with a scalpel, so we definitely try to keep things loose and relaxed whenever possible. It's not always as serious as it's dramatized on TV shows — "Scalpel, please nurse! This cut determines whether the patient lives or dies!" In reality, no one could tolerate that kind of intensity with every operation, every day. We'd all go mad. Instead, the aim is to have a relaxed atmosphere and a day without complications. The conversation during operations ranges from sports scores and events in the news, to the latest O.R. and hospital gossip.

Some subjects come up repeatedly. We discuss recent difficult or unusual cases (while maintaining patient confidentiality): "He was barely hanging on — recent heart attack, pneumonia, kidney failure, massively obese — and the family still wanted everything done. When I suggested it looked hopeless and maybe we shouldn't do an operation, they threatened to kill me. I had to call security."

Foolish administrative decisions are regular joke fodder. These decisions usually concern manpower, equipment and how to save money, and we resent the fact that these decisions are made without consulting us, the ones directly affected by any changes. In a typical example, they once chose to switch to cheaper, inferior bandages — which ultimately resulted in increased costs, since we had to use twice as many bandages — but no one bothered to ask us our opinion.

Finally, we often discuss the recent behavior of quirky characters who work in the operating rooms — the ones we love, though they drive us nuts. Like the assistant who never stops releasing silent but deadly farts during surgery or another who endlessly complains about everything in the O.R; the orthopedic surgeon whose non-stop jabbering earned him the nickname Dr. BBC; the internist who appears only at night to see pre-op patients (that would be Dr. Vampire); the hyperactive, boyish, bouncy, obsessive-compulsive and talented ophthalmologist whom nurses want to strangle after hearing him say, "It went perfectly, perfectly fine" to every patient at the end of every operation, 15 times a day.


Music helps the team relax and is a vital part of the preoperative routine. Each person has his or her favorite work soundtrack. Whether it's hard rock or classical music, it's amusing to see how important music is to some people, particularly surgeons. Some surgeons will even refuse to start surgery unless their radio station or personal CD is playing. Some will refuse to start if there is rap music playing. Personally, I don't like country music for the operating room — there's already going to be a lot of hurtin' going on. One surgeon I work with will not sew up the surgical wound unless a particular piece is playing. On many occasions, the operating room staff votes to select a certain style that everyone enjoys.

Sometimes the choice of music can create some funny situations — like the time "Hurts So Good" was playing just before a hip replacement, or when "Stairway to Heaven" played before I put a patient to sleep.


Excerpted from OPERATING ROOM CONFIDENTIAL by Paul Whang. Copyright © 2010 Paul Whang. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 A Day in the Operating Room 7

Chapter 2 On Call in the House of Scream 41

Chapter 3 Off-Label Truths About Doctors 59

Chapter 4 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly 84

Chapter 5 Outside of the O.R. 108

Chapter 6 On the Table 135

Chapter 7 Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Anesthesia: (But Were Too Unconscious to Ask) 167

Chapter 8 Some Cutting Remarks About the Future of the Operating Room 189

References 195

Acknowledgments 200

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