San Juan College's unique surgical assist program may be a gateway to a six-figure salary

Program aided by addition of new $79,000 simulator

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The new program is an extension of the college's surgical technician program, which has been in place for more than 10 years.
  • It is one of only a dozen or so programs around the country.
  • Students in the program's first cohort recently completed their first year.

FARMINGTON — A relatively new program at San Juan College that is the only one of its kind in the Southwest — and one of only a dozen or so across the nation — offers students the chance to build a health care career as a surgical assistant and potentially earn a six-figure salary.

The program, which is led by Lydell Powell, has been in operation at the college for a little more than a year and, aside from an intensive, one-week on-campus session, is offered online. Students can earn their credential as a certified surgical first assistant — a qualification that, in the case of independent practitioners, can allow them to easily make in excess of $100,000 a year, Powell said.

"You're as busy as you want to be," he said.

The new program is an extension of the college's surgical technician program, which has been in place for more than 10 years. Powell said the difference between the two is that technicians commonly are charged with such duties as maintaining sterile instruments, preparing the operating theater and tasks of that nature. Surgical assistants, on the other hand, play more of a hands-on role in surgical procedures, assisting with tissue manipulation, aiding in efforts to prevent and stop bleeding, and taking part in closures.

Those interested in becoming a surgical assistant typically earn their surgical technician certification first, he said, although physician's assistants or nurses also are qualified to join the program. Students also must have a minimum of an associate degree.

The San Juan College surgical assist program was launched Jan. 28, 2019, with a cohort of six students, Powell said, and five of those students completed the first year. A second cohort, also consisting of six students, recently began the program.

The college has plenty of room for more students. Powell said the program can accommodate up to a dozen students per cohort, and its online nature should make it attractive to people beyond San Juan College's normal recruiting sphere.

Powell said the job prospects in surrounding states are bright for students who obtain a surgical assist certification, noting the strong job market for that profession in Texas, Arizona and Colorado.

"Across the Southwest and in Texas, there's a greater demand than there are individuals doing it," he said.

As Lydell Powell, left, controls the camera, surgical technician student Nick Tenski performs a simulated gall bladder removal on the new LapSim machine at San Juan College in Farmington on Jan. 28, 2020.

Surgical assistants can choose to work in a variety of situations, he said. They can work for a hospital, they can work for a private physicians group or they can work as an individual contractor. He said surgical technicians who go on to obtain a surgical assistant certification will see an average increase in compensation of $30,000 a year.

Powell hopes the San Juan College program helps address the regional shortage of surgical assistants. Up until a year ago, anyone from the Southwest interested in obtaining a surgical assistant certification had little choice but to enroll in a program on the East Coast, he said.

Students can complete the program without traveling to Farmington aside from a one-week session of on-campus labs and hands-on evaluations, Powell said.

Lydell Powell, head of the San Juan College surgical assist program, operates the camera while surgical technician student Nick Tenski performs a procedure on the college's new LapSim machine on Jan. 28, 2020, at the college in Farmington.

Included in that week is experience training on the program's new LapSim machine, a $79,000 simulator that allows surgical assistant and surgical technician students to develop first-hand experience participating in surgical procedures such as gall bladder removals or appendectomies.

The machine features a large monitor that displays an extremely life-like representation of the human organs involved in various procedures. The panel features three controls — one for a camera, and the other two for surgical tools such as scalpels, scissors or cauterizing instruments. Foot pedals on the floor allow the operator to control the temperature of the cauterizing instruments.

Students work in teams on the simulator. While one controls the camera angle, the operator performs the procedure. The simulator is programmed to react the same way a human body would, so when the operator nicks a blood vessel, the video display reacts accordingly, even going so far as to feature simulated blood drops splattering the camera lens.

Drop-down menus on both sides of the video display allow the operator to choose the surgical procedure he or she wants to perform and the instruments that will be used for the procedure.

'There's a learning curve'

During a recent training session, Farmington resident Nick Tenski was performing a simulated laparoscopic cholecystectomy, a gall bladder removal that employs much smaller incisions than a traditional procedure. Using the controls, he severed two ducts connected to the bladder and placed clips on them to seal them before he began the removal of the bladder itself from the floor of the liver by using scissors and then a cauterizing tool.

Sophisticated and sensitive hand controls allow operators of San Juan College's new LapSim machine to gain valuable experience performing some surgical procedures.

The simulator keeps track of the time required to perform the procedure, as well as the operator's steadiness and precision. Afterward, students are assigned a score based on their performance.

"There's a learning curve," Powell said, describing the way most students struggle mightily with the simulator the first several times they use it.

But he said the machine already has demonstrated its worth as a training tool in the short time the college has had it. Students are free to use the simulator as often as they like, he said.

"Years ago, before laparoscopies, they never got to learn stuff like this until they went into surgical procedures," he said.

Tenski said the simulator's depth perception required some getting used to, as did the backward nature of the controls — up is down, left is right and vice versa.

"It's not really frustrating," he said. "It's more like nerve-racking."

Those interested in enrolling in the surgical technology or surgical assist programs at the college is encouraged to call Powell at 505-566-3856.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.