Wearing Surgical Masks While Working in a Health Care Setting

Wearing surgical masks during surgery may seem to be a very unimportant issue. After all, how important is it to have someone with us during the procedure? Certainly not as important as making sure we don’t inhale any blood, and that we are breathing into a mask that won’t get in our faces or cause our faces to swell beyond recognition. But if something goes wrong and there is a real emergency, then having surgical masks will come in very handy.

A few years ago, I was in the emergency room at a major hospital. The doctor there came in with what appeared to be a severe chest wound. Immediately I placed my face in the speculum and began breathing with great difficulty. My first thought was that there had been a cardiac arrest, but when the EMTs arrived, they said the problem was not cardiac but due to “elevated carbon dioxide.” This was my first brush with the idea of wearing surgical masks during routine operations.

As I looked at the EMTs, I could tell from their expressions that the patient was quite frightened, and had begun to panic. They told me to relax, that everything would be alright, and that they would be taking care of the situation. Shortly thereafter the patient was able to speak coherently, and the doctors determined that she had a respiratory tract infection. She was given an antibiotic and was released from the hospital soon after.

As I looked at the screen, I could see that her breathing had increased, and there were small solid pieces of glass particles in her eye. Although the respiratory infection was gone, she still had a lung infection, and a severe headache. Apparently, her head was touching the monitor while she was breathing in, and the glass fragments cut off some of her airway. It’s important to know what percentage of oxygen enters a patient’s bloodstream through normal breathing, because the amount of oxygen delivered to a person by surgical masks is greatly reduced when the wearer is coughing or hacking.

I remembered talking to someone about the possibility of using a medical LED display, but decided against it, for several reasons. The main issue was the difficulty of seeing the faces of the patients inside the masks. I also didn’t want to have to worry about the possibility of my becoming infected while inside one of these masks, so I opted out of the Figment system.

Although the EMTs and other workers who had helped me during my time in the hospital were very pleasant and caring, I did not feel comfortable letting them into the operating room. One of the nurses said that she had been in the operating room before and saw a problem with one of the ventilator units. I don’t think she mentioned to me that the ventilation system in the whole facility wasn’t working efficiently, but I can’t remember ever hearing of any major problems being addressed during my time as an EMT.

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