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Being Bullied in the Operating Room

Kari was a registered nurse for almost 25 years. She spent most of those years in the operating room.

I've seen them angrier.

I've seen them angrier.

Dealing With a Bully Surgeon

I have found that people with power often use their power to intimidate others. Think of nurses and surgeons. The surgeons intimidate and abuse nurses verbally on a daily basis. I have met surgeons who don't do this. But, believe me, most of them do. It's as if they cannot help themselves. They see weakness and pounce.

I know that many surgeons are wonderful role models in public. But in the OR, they become hideous. I think that it is caused by the closed doors. (Everyone knows that what happens in the OR stays in the OR.)

I have had surgeons that I am "friends" with yell at me continuously for more than 30 minutes. In fact, I used to work with the surgeon in this story quite often. It is always a power issue when the yelling starts.

The obscene, sexist comments that pour over me occur when I do things like not taking a patient to the operating suite because the permit is incorrect.

One of the worst instances involved a 90-year-old Spanish-speaking patient who did not know why she was in the operating room. I asked a Spanish-speaking colleague to ask the lady my preoperative questions. She knew her name and birthdate, but that was about it.

She did not know why she was in an operating room. The woman said she came because her doctor said to. (I have seen many elderly individuals think they must respect the doctor and do whatever s/he says without question.)

The Chart

Next, I went through her chart. The permit for the procedure was present, and someone had signed it, but that someone was not the patient. I called the floor nurse to ask who signed the permit, and she couldn't tell me. I asked her to call the family and get telephone consent.

The woman was scheduled for a gallbladder removal. This is not an emergency procedure. The patient will not die if the procedure is delayed, but the pain can be quite severe.

Although the pain will not kill her, the procedure might. There are millions of ways a surgery can go wrong. Time under anesthesia causes a great risk. Higher ages increase that risk.

As the RN, I was responsible for verifying the consent was correct. RNs are licensed by the state and must follow certain standards of practice. The laws surrounding consent are strict, and I could not verify the legal consent's accuracy.

I made the team and patient wait until a telephone consent was available. I can be sued if I don't follow policy and procedure and state law. I can lose my nursing license for negligence. (And I was a single mother, and my license paid for our food and lodging.)

Arriving in the OR Suite

When I finally brought the patient to the room, the surgeon immediately started in on me. He verbally assaulted for about 15–20 minutes. He used every curse in the book and, I must say, some original descriptions of how awful I was, how stupid I was, how lacking in integrity and conscience I was, and how utterly useless I was.

I become very polite in these instances. "Yes, sir." "No, sir." I do not back down, though. I always remind the doctor that my license feeds my children, just as his/her license feeds his/her family.

After the surgeon was done yelling at me, he left the room. I had expected the surgeon to yell. They always do. I did not expect the anesthesia provider, who was also a nurse, to attack me. But he did.

The anesthetist (CRNA) picked up where the surgeon left off. He continued to admonish me until we had the woman positioned and asleep. Again, the verbal assault was filled with obscenities.

Once the procedure started, the surgeon sent me out of the room for something he did not need. I know he and anesthesia wanted to bash me more.

Confront Your Bully Respectfully

As I came out of the room, one of the orthopedic sales representatives was standing with his mouth wide open. He quickly shut it and told me he was sorry I had to go through this.

I told him flippantly, "I've been yelled at worse by nicer people."

After I thanked him for his support, I returned to my task and my case. We completed the procedure without further incident.

I was touched by the caring the rep showed. He knew what it felt like. He was a sales representative for one of the meanest people I have ever met.

Later in the day, after the surgeon was finished with his procedures, I caught him and took him to a quiet substerile area. With no one else around, I told him firmly and politely that I did not appreciate being yelled at.

I reminded him that I always bust my butt to move things along. I reminded him again that my license is invaluable to me, just as his is to him. I additionally reminded him that when I protect my license, I am also protecting his license.

He acknowledged I bust butt. He said he understood the importance of my license. He never actually apologized. Instead, he said, "You are very hard to intimidate."

I accepted that. I did not care if my colleagues liked me, but I did care about respect. Respect is necessary between all players in the OR. Every new person, from housekeepers to surgeons, must earn this respect.

It's Not Just Surgeons

In the operating room, as in most businesses, bullying does not come from just one source. I have been bullied by surgeons, nurses, techs, and housekeeping. I have also been bullied by the OR director and once by a Director of Nursing. I always confronted the bullies because it gets worse if you do not confront them.

I found one day in school a boy of medium size ill-treating a smaller boy. I expostulated, but he replied: "The bigs hit me, so I hit the babies; that’s fair." In these words he epitomized the history of the human race.

— Bertrand Russell

This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2020 Kari Poulsen


Kari Poulsen (author) from Ohio on September 20, 2020:

Eric, I bet your table was full of it. Lol.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on September 20, 2020:

Kari - my dad an ER and OR doctor, Mom certified in both as well. Big sister an OR head nurse and nephew a male nurse in ER and Trauma.

Brothers are current in Wilderness Triage and regular WEMTs.

Oh the stories of being bullied by doctors. Our dinner table is that dry wordplay medical banter humor.

Kari Poulsen (author) from Ohio on September 20, 2020:

Why thank you Eric! That means a great deal to me. You gave me a smile. Bless you!

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on September 20, 2020:

You are cool!

Kari Poulsen (author) from Ohio on September 20, 2020:

Linda, in the beginning it was pretty horrible. But, then it became a game to me. The game could be described as "how many days of no yelling could I make in a row". I absolutely love assisting in surgery. The human body is fascinating, plus each one is unique. I never stayed away from surgery because of that fact. I could care for people in any branch of nursing, but I chose OR. :)

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on September 19, 2020:

I'm sorry that you had to experience the events that you describe, Kari. They sound horrible.

Kari Poulsen (author) from Ohio on September 19, 2020:

Pamela, We had a surgeon who was the sweetest gentleman on the floors, but a demon in the OR. The floor nurses could not believe it, lol.

I remember my OR years with fondness and would go back in a second if I could. Some nurses can't stand the abuse and refuse to work there. I have been training nurses who declare we are all crazy to put up with this. They find something else.

I think we fit in two groups. The ones who are smart and refuse to work OR, and the ones who are proud to have protected their patients against all conditions. Some people hate it and some people love it, but very few feel lukewarm about it.

Kari Poulsen (author) from Ohio on September 19, 2020:

FlourishAnyway, I have never regretted going into surgery. I know I would be less abused in other settings, but I never left. Its not that I am a glutton for abuse, just it upsets me less than many others.

Getting yelled at by a surgeon was not that upsetting to me. Is it because I grew up in New Jersey? I have even been yelled at and not realizing that the person was upset with me.

Once, while I thought the doctor was upset by the floor nurse, the doc stepped out to scrub in and my tech asked "WTF". After the tech said I was being yelled at I reverted to yes sir, no sir and the surgeon calmed down.

All this and my rhinoceros skin made oddly adapted to the operating room environment.

I stayed because the human body is miraculous and it was the only way to see how amazingly we are constructed. Every day you see miracles in the OR.

Kari Poulsen (author) from Ohio on September 19, 2020:

Eric, I agree, I much rather have a surgeon who excels than a surgeon who is a nice guy. That is why I usually work with the "jerks".

They like me also because I have exacting standards, learn very quickly and I work hard. I am also hard to intimidate.

I will never approach them about their behavior during surgery. I will take it and not hold a grudge.

It helps a great deal to approach them regarding unacceptable behavior. But, this must be done after surgery.

I was trained that it was my duty to my patient to take abuse because the only important person is the patient.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on September 19, 2020:

I was an RN for several decades but never an OR nurse. I was in the OR several times when I was assigned an open heart patient asI worked in the ICU. I never heard that particular doctor belittle anyone. He seemed to be a nice doctor always.

However, I have seen doctors in the ICU be rude and there was one in particular that no one liked for that reason. I as sorry you had such awful experiences.

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 19, 2020:

How awful. Do you regret becoming an OR nurse? In other professions you do not have to put up with such tirades.