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That’s My Job: Sterile Processing

Published on Monday, June 24, 2024

By: Annie Oeth, aoeth@umc.edu

Photos By: Jay Ferchaud/UMMC Photography

Think of them as superheroes doing battle with bacteria every day.

Sterile Processing at the University of Mississippi Medical Center – the 40-plus employees serving the adult hospital and the 13 employees at Children’s of Mississippi – know that, like superheroes, their work saves lives.

“They’re all superheroes,” said Kimberly Ronningen-Mekonis, director of Sterile Processing in the adult hospital, of her team. “I can’t brag about them enough.”

In the adult hospital’s SPD, team members are reminded of their superpowers by banners featuring Iron Man, Captain America, Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk, among others. Pictures of the Sterile Processing team members join them in the pantheon of superheroes in their break room.

Children's of Mississippi Sterile Processing director Donteus Hubbard uses a magnifying glass to inspect surgical tools before they're sterilized for use.

Children's of Mississippi Sterile Processing director Donteus Hubbard uses a magnifying glass to inspect surgical tools before they're sterilized for use.

At the Children’s of Mississippi Sterile Processing Department, director Donteus Hubbard wears a superhero cap from the year when Sterile Processing Week, celebrated each October by the Healthcare Sterile Processing Association, had a superhero theme. The imagery stuck, and they’ve been superheroes ever since.

“We’re superheroes because what we do keeps patients safe,” he said. “Every patient is important, so we take our jobs seriously.”

One of the Sterile Processing's superpowers: without the team, surgeries can’t happen, and neither can clinical procedures. Every medical instrument that must be sterilized and disinfected comes through Sterile Processing.

The process begins with couriers who gather medical and surgical equipment after care. These are taken back to Sterile Processing, where technicians clean each piece. The next step – sterilization – happens with steam, low-temperature or high-level disinfection, depending on the equipment.

Each device is examined to make sure it’s clean, disinfected and in top working order before it’s repackaged and prepared for the next use.

This process is done thousands of times a month and millions of times a year. In the adult hospital SPD, 459,760 instruments were cleaned, disinfected and examined in April. The same month, 9,794 trays were assembled. The number of adult operating room cases served that month was 1,781.

In the Children’s Sterile Processing Department, team members sterilize more than 600 items per day, on average, adding up to more than 14,000 pieces of medical equipment per month.

April was a busy month for surgeries at UMMC, Ronningen-Mekonis said. “We can tell when the hospital is busy because we’re busy.”

Just like superheroes, each Sterile Processing team member has unique strengths.

“This is a diverse group,” Ronningen-Mekonis said. “We have introverts and extroverts. We have an employee who’s been at UMMC 53 years and several 20-plus-year employees and some who have been here a few days. We balance well with each other, and when everyone is in working mode, no one is in a bad mood.”

Said Jeronda Snell, Sterile Processing quality assurance specialist: “It’s a force of diversity. The diversity makes us better.”

Different as each team member may be, “we’re all family here,” Hubbard said, “and we listen to everyone’s ideas and keep an open mind.”

Each day at 3 p.m., the Children’s SPD has an “open-floor conversation that’s transparent and respectful,” he said. “It’s a chance for every voice to be heard. We want to find the best ways to do our jobs well.”

Lashonda Johnson, educator for the Children’s Sterile Processing Department, said she and the rest of the team take those jobs seriously.

“What happens in Sterile Processing is just as critical as what happens in the operating room,” she said. “We want to do our best to give patients the best outcomes possible. That means excellent service all the time and every time. That consistency is part of the job.”

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