Rolling lab helps Mercyhealth staff bone up on surgery

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Neil Johnson
Saturday, September 23, 2017

JANESVILLE—Mercyhealth operating room technician Kathryn Cadwallader ran a bone screw through a hole in a surgical pin and hit pay dirt on one of two ends of a broken fibula she was fusing Friday morning.

Cadwallader had never tried drilling or screwing together a bone. But as an OR tech, she supports orthopedic surgeons who fuse and repair broken bones.

This ankle bone Cardawallader was repairing was a “sawbone,” a simulated bone of manmade materials. And the work she was doing was in a rolling bone surgery lab parked on Mercy Hospital and Trauma Center's helicopter tarmac in Janesville.

The lab, a spacious semitrailer tow-along run by medical supply manufacturer Stryker, was in temporary residency at the hospital Friday.

Surgeons later would train there, too, using Stryker's surgery tools and equipment on real human limbs from cadavers that Stryker supplies. The exercises were geared to help surgeons learn to use different tools to mend breaks more complex than simple fractures.

Cardwallader and her training partner, lead OR nurse Mandi Holcomb, were taking a walk in the surgeons' shoes. Mercyhealth Surgical Services Manager John Arend said the experience let them feel with their own hands the work of the surgeons they assist.

“It's a good experience for them to get that same feel that a surgeon experiences,” he said.

Cadwallader and Holcomb have aided in such ankle surgeries, which Arend said hospitals deal with weekly—and even more often as winter's slip-and-fall season descends. But neither has drilled into a bone or set screws during a surgical repair. They most often get a bird's eye view of imaging equipment that monitors a surgery to straighten out or surgically fuse bones.

Cadwallader said running a screw into a bone—even a manmade one—wasn't like what she'd anticipated.

“It was different doing this myself. More difficult than you'd imagine," she said. "You get an appreciation for their (surgeons') work."

The women used a saw to cut the simulated bone, making a diagonal but clean break in it. Holcomb pointed out that most bone breaks aren't typically that clean. Breaks surgeons see often involve bones that have been snapped or crushed, or twisted, splintered and intermingled with muscle and tissue.

“You watch it (a typical orthopedic surgery), and it's really turning things and piecing them. It's like putting a puzzle back together,” Holcomb said.

Across the rolling lab, Stryker's technicians were readying a real cadaver leg for a team of Mercyhealth foot surgery specialists, who later would delve into a complicated foot and ankle surgery.

Some of the two dozen or so nonsurgeons, such as Cadwallader, from Mercyhealth campuses in Janesville, Lake Geneva, Harvard, Illinois, and Rockford, Illinois, would earn continuing education credits for Friday's exercises.

Arend said such training sometimes can prompt operating room technicians and nurses to consider advancing their careers.

“If somebody like Kathryn wanted to go to physician assistant school, she can use this experience to feel through the processes and see how it's different from what she does now,” he said.

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