It’s still dark out when I walk into the busy and bustling preoperative area where patients and their family members crowd into small bays. They hand over their personal belongings to the RNs and their trust to me. As I walk in, I grab my patient’s hand, smile and say, “Hello. My name is Dr. Shillcutt. I am a cardiac anesthesiologist, and I am going to take care of you today.”
I am an anesthesiologist, which means I take care of patients who are sick or injured and need surgery. I “put you to sleep,” but more importantly, I wake you up. When I first told my mother I was going to pursue a career in anesthesiology, she looked at me confused and said, “Wait, there are special doctors that give anesthesia?” Haha! There are a lot of misconceptions about what anesthesiologists do, and I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked, “What exactly do you do for a living?”
Anesthesiologists are the guardian angels of the operating room. Their primary purpose is to keep you alive so you can undergo whatever procedure you need. While we may only meet you shortly before we take you to the operating theater, chances are we have researched your medical issues and discussed any special circumstances or concerns with our surgical partners before we see you. We understand disease processes and are experts in physiology, or how the body works. Unlike many physicians, we do not order others to administer drugs to our patients — we give them directly to patients under our care. We use drugs specific to anesthesiology, and we are experts in resuscitating patients who are in shock or have suffered a trauma. We are the physicians who are called whenever there is a “code blue, ” and we rapidly respond to emergencies and care for the sickest of the sick.
There are many different types of anesthesiologists. There are anesthesiologists who take care of the tiniest of patients, OB anesthesiologists who care for laboring mothers, ones that work in intensive care units and care for patients after surgery and pain anesthesiologists that treat chronic and acute pain states. There are anesthesiologists who perform nerve blocks and ones like me, who take care of patients undergoing heart transplants and valve surgeries and receiving mechanical hearts.
As with all physicians, we come in all personality types. Yet there is a common theme with anesthesiologists. Most of us are focused, detail- and task-oriented and have good manual dexterity. We are multi-taskers and listening to each of your heartbeats gives us security and peace. We understand that while we may have only met you five minutes before we take you to the operating room, and you may never remember us, your trust in us is a precious and vital gift and we will do whatever we can to return you to your full and upright position.
My mom is now one of my biggest supporters as an anesthesiologist. After having learned all I do, I am happy to say she understands exactly what an anesthesiologist does, and we have had several laughs over her previous misconceptions. While I hope you aren’t in need of an anesthesiologist anytime soon — if you are, perhaps now you will better understand our role. Your life is our life’s work.
Sasha K. Shillcutt is an anesthesiologist who blogs at Brave Enough.