Ode to the Surgery Rotation: Insight into Life in the OR

“I love waking up at 4am.”... Said No Medical Student Ever


The Bucket, the Fire Drill, and the Mountain: An Ode to the Surgery Rotation

By: Elizabeth L. McKinnon, MS-3



“Remember, we have to get this done fast. We have surgeries to get to and if we’re late, the attendings will be really pissed. So go fast. Walk into a room, say hello, and then start taking down the bandages. If they say “ow”, ignore it. The faster, the better. Got it? Good. Now get out of here, maggots.”

Ah, the surgery rotation. Can’t stand doing it, can’t pass without it. I feel that the majority of medical students would agree that Surgery is the most feared and dreaded rotation a medical student must go through, even if said student were interested in someday matching into it. Surgery is like a crash course in what it might be like if you walked into your first day working at a hospital and suddenly knew absolutely nothing – because that’s how you will probably feel from “Good morning” to “Yeah, I’m calling in sick tomorrow”.

Surgery has by far the worst hours, the most physically demanding of working conditions, and the scariest doctors. Even the interns walk around draped in their shiny metal armor, protecting themselves against the wrath of their senior residents and their attendings. And in turn, they zero in on students like we’re walking targets – they can and will to make your life a little more hellish.

By the third day of my rotation, the gags were getting on my nerves. I was forced to sit in the front row during a lecture and then I got booed for walking in less than 20 seconds late. Can you believe it? I actually got booed! As if I was a stand-up comedian who had been bombing during the small hours of amateur night. Truth be told, I was waiting on my steamy latte two floors down. But to all of them, I was taking my sweet time sauntering back to the auditorium with a Fonzie strut. It got to the point where I was too afraid to text while the lecturer was speaking, thinking someone would catch me and force me to read the text aloud. Yikes. When did hospital lectures become like a 6th grade classroom?

images-7Then there’s the schedule. After a month of waking up at 4am and putting in more than 12 hours a day at the hospital, I became a zombified, white coat-wearing cliché.
I grew pastier under the fluorescent lights of the hallways. I also unfortunately developed some bad habits when the day was over, and as a result, my neighborhood Chinese restaurant slowly memorized my name and dish because I was ordering from them on the phone every night.
I would often fall asleep waiting in line at Starbucks. I even found an abandoned part of the medical library and tried to catch a few winks in the dusty stacks of medical journals.


Surgery had turned me into a total space cadet who would walk into a room and then seconds later forget why I went in there in the first place.

Oh, and I almost forgot the best part. I was given a new name.

Yes that’s right. Late last month, I was rechristened. The new name bestowed upon me was the ever-eloquent, timeless name of “Bucket”.


Every morning after sign-out, the surgeons would gather in a ritualistic manner before the sun rose to welcome the new day. We met in the same place on the 8th floor with patient lists in our hands, and we would crowd around the almighty bucket. The bucket is filled with everything someone with a wound would need – two different kinds of tape, gauze galore, abdominal pads, 4 x 4s, syringe flushes filled with saline, and scissors. We never forgot the scissors. The punishment was severe if scissors were not found. We would be volunteering to retract and our spaghetti noodle arms would be numb, limp, and utterly useless for days.

The bucket came with many rules. The bucket must never touch anything in the patient’s room for fear that the bucket may become a cesspool of germy goodness. The bucket must also always be restocked – no matter what we used, we must always replace the items that had been used. Lastly, the bucket cannot be anywhere near the SICU, where the most critical patients were looked after. So before the team enters the SICU, the bucket must be brought back to its original place in the 8th floor storage room cabinet. There it would rest, recuperate, and prepare. Tomorrow is a new day, bucket. Be watchful. Be ready.


This dramatic interpretation is of course based on the true events of what I came to call “Fire Drill Rounds”. As a surgery student, we are required to do several weeks of general surgery teams in which we change bandages in the early morning and then participate in surgical procedures throughout the day. But the fire drill was by far the busiest part of the day.

“Bucket!” a resident would say. Then we’d show up and start handing them supplies. “Bucket! I need more X, Y, and Z! Does anyone have X, Y, or Z ready to go? Come on guys, you know the drill!”

I’m not sure how many times I was referred to as “bucket” or “student” and then orders were barked at me to cut gauzes or pull tape in long chunks, but it’s safe to say that we worked hard and we had to work very fast to please the residents.

Getting through the surgery rotation is comparable to climbing up a steep mountain. You only have to do it once, it takes a short lifetime to complete, and the whole time you’re doing it, all you want to do is complain to anyone who will listen.

But every once in a while, you should take a look around. Like taking in the beauty of the landscape from up above a mountaintop, slowing the pace in an otherwise hectic day can remind you of why you chose medicine in the first place.

For example, watching a surgery leaves me breathless. Seeing the human anatomy in situ while a person is being operated on is amazing! Imagine the technology and the genius that goes into creating surgical techniques and instrumentation. Even the laparoscopic procedures, where multiple students can participate by watching, I’m awestruck by the movements of the doctor’s hands as tissues are manipulated and diseased organs are removed. Surgery is a very unique specialty in the regard that a few hours of painless dreaming for a patient can be the change to the very course of his or her life. It can be freedom from pain or a second chance to achieve health. And in its own philosophical way, surgery is medicine that is virtually unstoppable. If we can put metal nails and cameras in the human body and perform drastic procedures leaving only a few scars to know we were there, what will the next 10 or 20 years bring? What will the doctors of my generation and beyond be able to do? What new heights will we reach to serve the medical needs of mankind?

Until that day comes, I’ll gladly smile with heavy eyelids whilst schlepping a pink bucket from room to room as haggard residents bark terse orders at me. After all, this is a mountain I’ll only have to climb once, so I might as well enjoy the view while I can.


… Elizabeth McKinnon

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Elizabeth McKinnon

Elizabeth McKinnon

A lifelong lover of books and the stage, Elizabeth set out to write her first book in college and her second one while she was working as a medical assistant at a dermatologist's office. In her spare time, she writes plays and short stories and enjoys sharing them with friends and family. She plans to pursue a writing career in medical fiction and is currently working on her third book. Elizabeth is a Pathology Resident at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
Elizabeth McKinnon

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