PRH: Making a difference

Operating room nurse Vaughn Smeltzer helps prepare the OR for surgery at Penticton Regional Hospital. Smeltzer recently joined the OR nursing staff after several years in the Emergency Department at PRH.

To work as an operating room nurse, you have to be somewhat obsessive/compulsive, admits Vaughn Smeltzer.

Smeltzer, a Licenced Practical Nurse, first joined the staff at Penticton Regional Hospital in October 1994. After working as an LPN in the high-energy atmosphere of the emergency department for almost 15 years, Smeltzer realized it was time for a change. He found his calling in the O.R.

“I needed to find something different,” he recalled. “About two years ago I went back to school, still working full-time. I had to pay for it myself, but if I passed they would pay me back.”

Following the successful completion of online courses and then lab training in Kelowna, Smeltzer underwent four months of clinical O.R. training at PRH and later became one of two new nursing staff members hired for the O.R.

Smeltzer loves the change and the challenge of learning something new.

“The O.R. is structured. It can be busy and harried – everything is timed (for laying out the surgical equipment required),” he said. “But you generally know what you’re going to be doing that day.”

For instance, nurses preparing the orthopedic operating room will know what type of surgeries are scheduled – be it hip or knee surgery or something else.

He compares this to emergency, which by its very nature, is much more unstructured. “You don’t know what’s going to come in the door,” he said.

There are three LPNs in the Penticton O.R. out of a staff of about 20 (mainly registered nurses who assist during surgery). They begin their day at 7 a.m., getting the operating rooms ready for the day’s surgeries.

In the OR, a sterile environment is paramount. LPNs are responsible for making sure all the surgical equipment, the tables and other aspects are completely sterile for surgery.

“If you’re not obsessive/compulsive to start with, you soon develop it,” Smeltzer said. “As the scrub nurse in particular, you have to be protective of your sterile environment.”

Nurses will guard their zone to protect it against possible contamination by something unsterilized and the patient getting infected.

“Some of them are like Mama Bears – super protective. It’s a cramped, crowded environment,” he said. “I know I’m going to become like that, but I’m still getting there.”

Smeltzer eagerly awaits completion of the new tower in April 2019. It will contain five new and much larger surgical suites. The additional space will give everyone some badly needed elbow room. Much of the equipment will also be lowered on booms from the ceiling, rather than using valuable floor space.

“I can’t wait. It’s going to be so nice. I’m really excited,” he said. “The physicians are too.”

Smeltzer emphasizes though, that the quality of the surgeries currently performed at PRH is just as good as anywhere else.

“The surgeons are fantastic. When you’re forced to work in a small space like that, you become more focused on what you have to do. If you can succeed in this environment, it will be that much easier and less stressful to do it in a bigger, nicer, more modern environment.”

PRH is currently undergoing a $312-million expansion and the South Okanagan Similkameen Medical Foundation is raising $20 million to provide the medical equipment required. To donate, contact the SOS Medical Foundation at 250-492-9027 or visit our website