How do surgeons work for 26 hours straight?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 14 2006 6:11 PM

Twenty-Six Hours in Surgery?

How long operations work.

Richard Holbrooke, the president's envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, underwent more than 20 hours of surgery to repair a torn aorta over the weekend. In an "Explainer" column reprinted below, Daniel Engber told how surgeons keep at it for such long periods of time.

A pair of conjoined 4-year-olds who were separated in mid-August have moved out of the intensive-care unit. It took a team of surgeons in Utah more than a day to divide the twins, who shared a body up to the mid-torso. How can surgeons work for so many hours in a row?

They work in teams. A conjoined-twin operation can be broken down into many stages, like the initial incision, the work around the bones, separation of the blood vessels, and reconstructive plastic surgery. A different team of surgeons scrubs into the operating room for each stage, most of which take only a few hours to complete. That way, most of the surgeons don't end up working for more than four or five hours in a row.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Advertisement

The lead surgeons try to stay involved for the duration. They'll stay in the operating room for as long as they can, with a couple of breaks for snacks and rest. A surgeon who specializes in long-haul surgeries told the Denver Post that he stops for food and drink every seven hours or so. "It really is like a marathon," he said. "You've got to keep hydrated."

When surgeons at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center separated a pair of twins who were conjoined at the head, they had a live feed of the procedure on a video display in a room upstairs. That way doctors who weren't involved in a particular stage could scrub out for a while and watch the operation on TV.

For the Hopkins conjoined-twin procedure, four surgeons operated at any one time, with one pair assigned to each twin. Nurses shifted into the procedure every few hours, with two assigned to each pair of surgeons. Having so many people at the table could get a little confusing, so nurses and surgeons who worked together wore the same color stripe on their surgical caps.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks George Jallo of the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Gaming
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.