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Leaving a Legacy Behind You: Dealing with Loss, Grief, and Value in Sterile Processing

If you work long enough in our industry, you will likely encounter the loss of a sterile processing co-worker at one point or another. Perhaps your department has a small plaque outside the breakroom with someone’s name on it who has long since passed away, or you hear occasional stories about Ms. Judy from the OTs (original technicians) in your facility who keep her memory alive with smiles and chuckles. While most of us don’t like to ponder too long on something as morose as death, the truth is that it’s coming for all of us. As a manager, it’s not unheard of to lose one of your employees to cancer. As a co-worker, it’s not uncommon to hear of a heart attack taking someone from your team. Whatever the cause, losing a member of the sterile processing family is never easy and can impact your department in a number of ways. Let’s take a look at how to prepare for, respond to, and carry on in the face of loss among our teams.

Tomorrow is not promised
It is human nature to assume that what is, always will be. Each of us is a creature of habit in some form and fashion. We take the same way to work every day, put on our scrubs in the same order, or prefer to sit in the same place in our breakrooms. It is not surprising then to begin to take our tomorrows for granted, and start believing that “there’s always tomorrow” to finish what we started in our sterile processing department. The truth is that one day there will not be a tomorrow, and there’s a good chance that we will not know when that day is.

In light of this basic reality of a fragile human existence, how then shall we work? How do we prepare now to leave a legacy behind us that is worth our sterile processing co-workers remembering? There are many good answers to this question, but here are a few to consider:

Work with kindness
Do any of us want to be remembered as unkind? When you think of those friends and family who you have lost already, isn’t their kindness one of those characteristics that brings the biggest smile to your face? While department drama and fractured relationships can seem insurmountable at times, when seen against the background of an entire life and career, those things really pale in comparison to a kind heart that seeks peace among co-workers rather than controversy.

Work with lives in mind
One of the most unique aspects of the sterile processing vocation is the reality of how intimate our work product becomes with the patient. We are the only ones in the entire surgical workflow who actually touch the surgical instrument with our bare hands before they are sterilized and later touch the patient in the healing work of surgery. No one touches an infant’s heart with their bare hands, but the pediatric chest retractor we inspected and assembled gets about as close as any human being ever will. Just think about that. Your literal and figurative fingerprints have gone into surgery on surgical instruments that have likely been used today to remove cancer, restore sight, and help someone walk again. What a tremendous honor, what a singular distinction in human vocations to be able to touch so many souls with the hope of recovery, renewal, and restoration. You do that, sterile processing technician. Work in a way that reflects that impact, and ultimate contribution to the mission of safe surgical care.

Work with depth
This one is a little different from the previous points. Depth is a hard word to define in this context. Really, this is getting at working in a way that remembers how deep each of us are who work in sterile processing. We’ve all come from different places, different backgrounds, different home lives, and different challenges to this one, united mission of fighting dirty for our patients. The technicians who are remembered most fondly are those who treated everyone as a complex, but valuable human being. Ultimately, we are worth more than any credential we happen to hold, or any skill set we happen to excel or struggle in, and those co-workers who treat us like it earn a level of respect that goes beyond mere acquaintance.

Honoring in the moment
The grieving process is different for everyone, so the following is not meant to be as prescriptive as it is illustrative of trying to practically work through the loss of a sterile processing co-worker. If you do find yourself in a situation where a co-worker has passed away, what do you do as a fellow technician or department leader? Here are a few sensible steps to consider.

  • Make it as easy as possible for staff to attend viewings, wakes, and funerals. Even though there is never a good time to let multiple staff members off at the same time, the passing of a close friend and co-worker can be a traumatic event in the lives of your employees. Do everything in your power as a department leader to make it possible for any staff who would like to attend memorial services to do so. This experience is important to provide closure for your staff, but also provide much appreciated representation from the employer for the family who lost their loved one.
  • Related to the above, department leaders should make it a priority to try to attend these memorial services. Opinions vary on this point, but I believe that even if you were not the best of friends with the employee, it means a lot to have the department leader present for such a service to pay your final respects.
  • Do what you can to gather a group of employees to contribute to a card, flowers, or related memorial gift to the family. Again, this can take various forms depending on the particular context, but the big takeaway is that you are showing the family and your team that this person mattered to you by your decision to send a bouquet of flowers, for instance. While seemingly small, these actions do have value to the family during their time of grief.

Moving forward after the loss
Remembering a lost co-worker can take many different forms. As mentioned in the introduction to this article, it can mean something as simple as a plaque and as dynamic as the stories told by fellow co-workers. Whatever that looks like for your team, be aware that it can take time for the reality of the loss to really settle in. Individuals cope in different ways, and grief is not always a simple process. As startling as it may be, data shows that many of us will spend more waking hours with our co-workers in the course of our lives than we do with our own family members.1 Because of this, the relationships built over many years in our sterile processing departments often take time to reorient once they are gone.

Ultimately, this grieving process is a sign of how impactful that life actually was. It shouldn’t be easy to forget or move on from someone who made coming to work a joy. It shouldn’t be a quick process to get over losing a fellow warrior in the fight against microbial agents seeking to do our patients harm. You do not have to, nor should you, forget that teammate who poured their own life into serving others. In fact, you may very well want to carry on their passion to the next generation of sterile processing professionals.

Whether you are the one who leaves or the one who is left behind, I urge us all to commit to building a legacy worth remembering in our industry.




  1. Umoh, Ruth. “This study identified the 5 people that make up a ‘work family’—which one are you?” CNBC, accessed February 3, 2022. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/12/14/this-study-identified-the-5-people-that-make-up-a-work-family.html#:~:text=The%20average%20full%2Dtime%20American,a%20new%20HP%20workplace%20survey.

Feature articles exclusively for Ultra Clean Systems by Weston “Hank” Balch, BS, MDiv, CRCST, CER, CIS, CHL

Weapon of Mass Microbial Destruction * Professional Clean Freak * Podcast Host * Safety Addict * CS/SPD Consultant

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