WRNMMC, Bethesda, MD –
While surgeons and other physicians may receive the notoriety in health care, they will be the first to admit it takes a team to provide safe, quality care. Essential members of the team are sterile processing professionals, the unsung heroes of health care responsible for decontaminating patient-care equipment, cleaning and sterilizing surgical instruments, and dispensing sterile supplies.
To salute sterile processing professionals, whose work often go unnoticed, the second Sunday of every October marks the first day of Sterile Processing Week, running this year from Oct. 10-16. Sterile Processing Week, formerly called International Central Service Week, recognizes the specialists behind the scene who work in Sterile Processing departments and make a difference in patient care.
“The most rewarding thing about being a sterile processing professional is knowing that I help save lives and learn new things every day,” said Shereka Hughes, a sterile processor at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center who has worked in the field for nine years. “I became a sterile processing professional because I love working in the medical field, helping others, learning new things, and being able to introduce what I’ve learned to my now 16-year-old daughter,” she added.
Jacqueline Buteau has been in the field for 24 years. She agreed that knowing you’re part of a team saving lives and helping people heal every day, are the most rewarding aspects of the profession. “I was working at the Washington Hospital Center [in another area] when a friend of mine introduced me to the sterile processing profession. I received my training and education at Holy Cross Hospital,” she explained.
Buteau added it’s important to work as a team in the health-care field. “With every challenge, there’s always someone close by to assist in every situation,” she said.
Army Spc. Leah Howard learned about sterile processing during her Army Career Advancement training. She then received three months of didactic instructions at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, followed by an additional three months of clinical training at different military hospitals to enter the career field.
“During the training you learn the proper techniques [for sterile processing], the importance of time management, [and] attention to details. After the training period, I was able to sit for a certification examination, which I passed to become a certified surgical technologist,” Howard explained. She’s been working as a sterile processing professional since November 2020.
“The most rewarding aspect about being a sterile processing professional is I get to create a stable channel of proper technique that significantly affects many patients. My job directly impacts the patient’s life, and I take pride in being a part of their surgical journey, knowing that details matter,” Howard added.
Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Kevin Lampro agreed. “My training began with a two-month didactic phase at JBSA, and then continued with a four-month clinic phase, which I completed at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Virginia. Throughout both phases we learned about all aspects of working as a surgical technician, both in the operating room and in sterile processing. We were tested on sterile technique, surgical procedure and terminology, instrument names and functions. We learned about different methods of decontamination and sterilization and the parameters for each method, as well as how to properly store instruments and what to check for both as a technician assembling a set and upon opening it in the operating room.
“Working in sterile processing there is little to no direct patient interaction, so a lot of the rewarding parts of the job are not as instant as they are for other technicians,” Lampro continued. “Here, we are able to focus more on the interactions we have with each other day to day. For me personally, I find satisfaction in knowing that I have done the best job I possibly can. The sets we clean, assemble and sterilize may not be used on a patient [immediately], so I choose to focus more on the pride I take in my work and the relationships I am able to build with my fellow technicians, although it doesn’t go unnoticed that every successful surgery when the patient is able to leave happier and healthier is a direct result of my hard work as well,” he added.
Alberto Carrion has worked in the sterile processing field for 27 years. In addition to his training and years of experience, Carrion said he continues to study different subjects related to the profession. This has enabled him to pass a number of examinations regarding sterile processing.
“Few people know this department exists, [or] our importance and how we support and represent the entire hospital with what we do,” Carrion said. “It’s rewarding to know many times you’re part of saving the life of someone,” he added.
All the team members agreed that sterile processing is not a static field, it’s constantly changing, which is why continual education is essential in their field for safety, quality care and saving the lives.
The International Association of Healthcare Central Service Materiel Management, the originator for Sterile Processing Week, states, “Regardless of their title or tenure, every sterile processing professional should be recognized for their hard work and dedication to quality customer service and patient safety.
The roots of sterile processing can be traced back to the 1800s when Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician and scientist, became an early pioneer of antiseptic procedures. In 1867, two years after Semmelweis' death, Scottish surgeon Dr. Joseph Lister also encouraged sanitizing hands and surgical instruments to halt infectious diseases. Lister applied Louis Pasteur's advances in microbiology, and used of carbolic acid as an antiseptic so that it became the first widely used antiseptic in surgery.