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When Life Hands You Lemons, Think Beyond Just Lemonade

Going into 2020, many of us were excited about what the year had in store. Even the “2020” conjured up clear vision and a sense of positive anticipation for the months ahead. And then, KABOOM! The pandemic hit and everything was upended in a blink. Our lives became a harried, stress-filled, uncertain, and at times, scary blur.

If this year taught us anything, it’s that we can’t count on the comfort of status quo, either in the workplace or in our personal lives. No question, our day-to-day rhythms have been disrupted in unexpected and often downright uncomfortable ways, and we still don’t know what tomorrow, next week, next month, or even next year will bring (although many of us are anticipating much of the same, while still holding onto hope that some old normalcies will return sooner rather than later).

For all the challenges 2020 delivered (and there, undoubtedly, were many), I believe it’s important, if not responsible, to take time to examine the year through a broader lens. Not entirely apart from the merits of diligent instrument inspection that allows sterile processing (SP) professionals to identify and proactively address flaws, damage, and debris before they have a chance to negatively impact a patient, examining the year with a wider angle allows us to see the cracks, flaws, and pain points with a different perspective—and, ideally, with one that reminds us of more than just the perilous fallout of a pandemic.

Paradoxically, this year has seemed to move at both a snail’s pace and warp speed, harkening back to the old saying, “Days are long, and the months are short.” For many in the SP realm, that’s never been a more accurate description. Under the COVID-19 calendar, many employees have seen their everyday tasks within the department grow considerably and in unexpected directions, including (for some) the need to reprocess face masks when supplies became depleted and emergency use authorizations made it temporarily permissible. They may have also found themselves more directly assisting other departments to meet the needs of a growing, more vulnerable patient population and even a shrinking workforce due to interdepartmental colleagues’ own bout with the virus (or their decision to walk away from the healthcare profession altogether).

In the process, SP professionals and their collective discipline have found themselves more in the spotlight and, increasingly, earning the respect and understanding they’ve longed for and long deserved. I suppose one could say that when life doled out the lemons, at least the profession managed to turn them into something less sour. Even better news is if SP professionals remain focused, goal-oriented, and strategic in how they approach their professional journeys, it’s possible to keep that momentum going long after the pandemic passes.

Embracing new opportunities
With so many other healthcare professionals leaning on the expertise of their SP teams (not to mention an even greater understanding of the profession from within our general communities), some strategic opportunities may become clearer.

Despite the immensely stressful workplace circumstances, SP professionals have an opportunity to share with their interdepartmental colleagues (and, perhaps, even those in the C-suite) how their knowledge, skills, and expertise allow them to eradicate microorganisms each and every day on the job, many of which are more challenging than the novel coronavirus. Of course, with the pandemic entering the equation and personal protective equipment (PPE) and supplies woefully depleted in hardest-hit regions, SP professionals were able to rise up and deliver on a grand scale, using their expertise to help ensure those on the frontlines of patient care had what they needed to deliver care as safely as possible.

Many SP leaders and technicians may have found themselves in unofficial educator roles, explaining the whys, whats, and hows regarding the SP discipline with others throughout the facility. Managers were often faced with the difficult task of scheduling staff more creatively to meet the changing demands of the healthcare organization amid the pandemic, and serving as unwitting counselors for staff members who may have wanted to leave their shifts (and, in some instances, the profession entirely) due to skyrocketing stress, uncertainty, and outright fear of acquiring COVID-19 in the workplace or subsequently infecting their loved ones. However unfortunate the circumstances behind these broadened duties may be, they have nonetheless shown SP professionals that they’re stronger, more capable, and far more well-rounded than they may have given themselves credit for previously.

I spoke with one SP technician who seemed to put it best: “What this year showed us is we’re not all cut out for a [long-term] career in healthcare, and that’s okay. But those of us who stay with it will hopefully do it because we realize we’re desperately needed and we’ll want to keep making a positive impact on infection prevention and patient safety, and also the safety of healthcare workers. How far we want to go and what roles we want to pursue is really up to us.”

Indeed, some technicians may have learned they’re able to lead effectively and remain deeply focused during even the most stressful, unpredictable times. This may lead them to seek advanced certifications or, perhaps, even advanced degrees that will make them better suited to leadership roles within the department. Existing supervisors and managers, for example, with their experience gleaned this year and into 2021, may wish to aim for director roles.

Whatever the case, there’s no time like the present to clearly and frequently document newly learned or sharpened skills, all the ways you used your knowledge and leadership skills to problem solve more effectively, and the professional goals you wish to pursue in the months and years ahead.

Although there are days when we can all agree that it feels like the sky is falling, we must remember the reality: the sky’s the limit

Julie Williamson has served as IAHCSMM’s editor since 2000 and also serves as IAHCSMM’s communications director. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and has had hundreds of articles published on topics related to sterile processing, surgical services, infection prevention, and materials management. In her IAHCSMM roles, she writes, coordinates, and edits articles for IAHCSMM’s PROCESS magazine and its e-newsletter, Insights; researches, writes, and edits articles for various healthcare journals and trade publications; drafts press materials; and mentors up-and-coming authors and editorial contributors.


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