As I paced down the hallway right outside the operating room in my bright turquoise scrubs and white coat, I thought to myself: “six weeks... only six weeks and this rotation will be over.” I knew I didn’t want to be here; surgery was the last field I wanted to specialize in. I was dreading this rotation ever since I was taught how to properly gown and glove last year in my surgery course. The day was finally here: today would be the day I had to figure out how to scrub in for surgical procedures without compromising the dress of a Muslim woman!
Scrubbing in for surgery didn’t just mean washing your hands (I wish it was that simple). "Scrubbing in" meant changing into a newly-washed and sterile set of scrubs every morning before entering the operating room (OR), using a flatbed nail apparatus to clean under each nail, and utilizing a brush sponge to scrub from the tips of your fingers all the way up to the elbows for a minimum of 5 minutes. This must be done every single time in order to ensure that every set of hands that touch the patient are extremely sterile. To be able to do all this, one had to be in a short sleeve scrub top for an extended period of time not just to “scrub in” but also to wait around until a surgical technician had the time to gown/glove you. How was I going to pull this off when my religion requires my forearms to be covered?
I was worried, especially since most general surgeons are intimidating. I mean, have you met a surgeon? They are either cursing, yelling or throwing things. Sometimes doing all three. The man I anticipated to look like an old, grumpy surgeon, looked like a young Tom Brady. I couldn’t decide if this was a good thing or not. He walked out of the two double doors of the operating rooms and walked towards me. I stopped pacing and watched as he came closer. I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t tell if he was offering a smile, so I just kept a serious face. He mumbled something under his breath which sounded like he was telling me to follow him; I nodded and power-walked right after him as he started to show me around.
Within a few moments the tour of the small hospital was over. He told me to get changed and scrub in for our first procedure: a cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal). Strangely enough, I felt a rush of excitement. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all!
But as I entered the ladies' dressing room, the reality of the matter hit me and it hit me hard. I started to panic. It was my first day: how was I supposed to tell this general surgeon that I couldn’t scrub in while he was present?
I cowardly decided to ignore the fact that it was against my religion to expose my arms in front of men. My reasoning behind this was: “what makes my arms so special anyway?” I’m sure these doctors and surgical technicians have seen hundreds of bare arms and it’s not like mine are made out of gold. I figured this was a good enough reason to just suck it up and go get scrubbed in. After the first procedure was over, a huge sigh of relief came over me. I grabbed my long sleeve white coat and kept my arms covered. Then I realized we had another procedure and I had to do it all over again. Turns out we actually had 4 procedures that day, so my arms weren’t covered 4 different times in that one day.
I kept trying to convince myself it was okay.
God will understand, right? I mean this is a really hard situation to speak up in, God will forgive me. He knows I’m not purposefully showing my arms, right?
During the last procedure of the day, I felt so disappointed in myself. I try my best to educate people about Islam and how beautiful of a religion it is; and here I am being a coward, without the courage to speak up about something that is obligatory in my religion. Why am I being such a hypocrite? I like to think of myself as a strong Muslim woman and here I am being a weak and terrible example of what this perfect religion stands for.
As we wrapped up everything for the last case, I took a deep breath and walked towards the man that I thought was probably about to chew me out for being a hassle of a student that he didn’t want to deal with. I opened with, “I know I did this multiple times today, but I just didn’t know how to ask or how to approach you about something that is so important to me.” He looked at me in confusion, so I continued. I went on to tell him that I really shouldn’t be scrubbing in and waiting around to be gowned and gloved by a surgical tech while men were walking around.
I offered a suggestion, “would it be okay if I just stayed in my long sleeve white coat and stood next to the anesthesiologist in the unsterile field?”
He didn’t say anything for a moment, but then filled the silence with, “well, I usually want my students to really get involved with the procedures we do here, like hold retractors, feel different organs and suture/close patients up.”
I tried to reassure him that surgery was nothing I would ever be interested in because of all the “accommodations” I come with. He looked strangely disappointed for a split second, then had a spark of an idea. He asked me to confirm whether or not it was just specifically men that couldn’t see my arms or if it was everyone. I answered him and he said, “well how about we have you scrub in before the procedures start and I will tell the female surgical tech to gown and glove you while I, along with the other male technicians, wait outside for you to get ready…”
In that moment I think my eyes started watering. How could I have been so wrong about this man? I looked at him in disbelief and asked if he would really be okay with doing that, and he said: “Of course! I’m here to teach you, not to restrict you and ask you to break the rules of your religion.” I could have almost hugged him, but of course I didn’t (haha)! I was so grateful; I think I said thank you 453 times. He was so accepting of my religion; we even spoke a little about Islam and what it stood for throughout the next few days.
For the next 5 weeks, I walked into the hospital confidently knowing that I wouldn’t be compromising any part of my religion to fulfill the requirements of this rotation. I can’t believe how wrong I was about how this general surgeon would react to what I needed and how willing he was to accommodate my needs. There were multiple times when he would take 5 minutes to call the male surgical techs out of the operating room, tell them to turn their backs so I could walk in and get gowned and gloved by the female technicians, who might I add were happy to make sure I was fully covered before any men reentered the room.
By the end of my rotation, the female technicians would even review the surgery schedule to check for male patients. If there was a male patient being rolled into the operating room, the surgical technicians would ask the nurses to wait to wheel him in until I was fully covered and ready for the operation. I mean, they really went above and beyond for me! They were so considerate, and I am eternally grateful for the people at this small-town rural hospital.
Simply put: Rhea County Medical Center is such an amazing place to work! The surgeons and surgical staff are so accommodating, even to little old me!
Helpful hint: While I was on this rotation, from Day 1 I also went above and beyond the call of duty for a PA student. In addition to doing my responsibilities as a student, I always tried to keep a positive attitude, have a smile on my face, and most importantly- tried to help the technicians and nurses with cleaning up after the procedures. You can never expect people to go above and beyond for you if you are not willing to do the same for them. Sometimes no matter what you try to do for other people, they will not reciprocate your effort. But at the very least, you leave them with a positive impression of a female Muslim medical student.
Also, you may not be as lucky as me with the staff that I worked with, but at the end of the day – you won’t know how people will react to what you need until you ask.
Feel free to share your thoughts or experiences with me, would love to hear about you!
Thanks for reading!