From patient to health professional

It took a shocking accident and two years of rehabilitations after major facial reconstructive surgery for Katie Chadwick-Smith to realise what she wanted to do for the rest of her working life.

Katie Chadwick Smith Anaesthetic TechnicianFor years she’d been self-employed with a number of retail outlets and other ventures. Then she had the accident.

“It was huge and the facial injuries were about as serious as you can get,” she says. “For two years I was going to Hutt Hospital for operations and therapies. It made me realise I wanted to work in health.”

Her plastic surgeon suggested the idea of training as an anaesthetic technician. She applied and, 18 months later, was offered a training position. She qualified four years ago and is now an experienced anaesthetic technician at Hutt Hospital.

Katie’s workplace is the operating theatre; her job is to work alongside and assist the anaesthetist. “People think of the team of surgeons and nurses in an operating theatre, but there’s also another team – the anaesthetist, who’s also a doctor, and the anaesthetic technician.”

She explains it’s a fairly new profession, only regulated by the Medical Science Council two years ago. In the past, the anaesthetist was assisted by a nurse who’d done a six-month course. Now it’s a three to four-year university diploma course.

“It’s become highly technical and the course is very science-oriented. From day one, it’s a mix of clinical and academic work. You can’t just graduate from university and do this job, you need that hands-on experience.”

Katie says a day in her working life starts half-an-hour earlier than everyone else in the team. Her first task is to thoroughly check the anaesthetic machine and its gases, equipment and medications.

“A big reason we’re here is to reduce mortality and morbidity,“ she says. The College of Anaesthetists now requires anaesthetic technicians to be there for all general and spinal anaesthetics.

On any day, there could be between one to ten operations. “I’ll meet with the anaesthetist as soon as they arrive to discuss what’s needed and make sure everything is organised and ready to go.” What sort of day follows depends on the nature of the operations and how sick the patients are.

“It can be reasonably laid back if you have a fit and healthy patient. If it’s a lengthy procedure and a very sick patient, you don’t sit down the entire time. We take blood for testing, organise fluids and medications and keep the patient warm and positioned for surgical access.

There are lots of different blood tests we use see how the patient’s going. It can be non-stop, taking and testing blood,” says Katie.

A big part of her job is crisis management, dealing with cardiac arrests for example. If you’re going to have a heart attack, the operating table is the best place to be, she says. “There’ll be an anaesthetic team on hand, trained to respond immediately.”

Katie loves her job, and even enjoys working nights and weekends. “That’s when you get the really sick people and the really interesting cases. That’s the work that drives me.”

And after years of working on her own, she values being part of a team of highly motivated people. But like most health workers, she’s disgusted with the DHB offer of a 0.7 percent pay increase. 

“I feel if people could spend a day in the life of a health worker, they would realise how and underpaid we are. If it wasn’t for people’s love of their jobs, the health service would really suffer. “

But apart from that, she says there are no downsides to her job.

Katie often works alongside the plastic surgeon who fixed her face, and did such a marvellous job, and the anaesthetist who managed her airway at the time of her accident.

“I look back and think that going through the accident was kind of fortuitous because I’ve ended up here. I feel this is where I belong.”


This article is from the August 2014 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.