Aysa Johnson, who just turned 19, recently worked in a Tanzanian operating room as a part of a two-week service mission.
She and the other 16 students of the Salt Lake Community College’s Jordan Applied Technology Center’s surgical technology program became the youngest people in the world to work in an operating room.
Johnson worked on the 18-month training starting the summer before her senior year at Herriman High School and will finish this month.
She has worked two six-week internships at LDS Hospital and Primary Children’s Hospital. It is required that she work in every medical field from plastic surgery to brain surgery.
Johnson left for Tanzania Nov. 8, after four months of preparation and fundraising.
“I had a hard time with the idea of her going. She was spending her whole life savings and traveling to an area of the world that is riddled with disease and conditions she’s just not used to,” her mother Lisa Johnson said. But Aysa would assure her she was “meant to go.”
She travelled with a team of nine people, from around the country, which included two surgeons, Johnson and two other techs, a medical assistant from Provo and two nurses.
The team took 21 50-pound suitcases filled with medical supplies with them.
The medical supplies they gathered were left over from American operating rooms, things that under American standards would be thrown away, items that were brought into the operating room but never used.
However, in a place like Tanzania, where supplies are rare at best, these cast-off items can be lifesaving tools.
“The hospital here saves everything. If it doesn’t get blood on it, it gets saved. When a surgery was over, they took my gown to be used as a patient gown. I was kind of surprised at first, but now I am very careful not to touch my blood-spattered gloves to the front of my gown,” Johnson said from Tanzania via Facebook instant messenger.
“It’s so hard coming from America where everything is sterile; everything is new and clean. There must be so many bacteria in the hospital here, I’m amazed that more patients don’t come back with SSI (surgical site infections),” she added.
As a part of the work they did, team members cleaned the hospital and taught the staff there about the ways in which pathogens are spread and also taught them about sterilization and general cleanliness.
An example of the need for education was a pillow Johnson found. After removing the drape on the pillow, she found another. Removing that drape exposed yet another and another until she found one soaked in blood and dirt. She taught the staff that to remove and launder the soiled bedding is far better than simply covering it up.
Although Tanzania has not yet had a case of the Ebola virus, the team taught and prepared the staff on how to safely treat it if or when the disease reaches them.
The experience was humbling in many ways for Johnson.
“I’ve learned that I’m spoiled in a lot of ways and need to toughen up,” she confessed. “These people have never had pain control medicine before. So, for post-op pain, for any procedure, they are given one Advil to take when the local wears off, and they’re good. They never complain. And 20 minutes after giving birth, the new moms stand up, put their panties and dresses back on and walk to the patient room with their baby.”
Johnson has gone through some medical testing since her return just to be sure she did not bring any illnesses home with her.
Her future plans are running in the 2015 Miss Herriman Pageant, where she was first runner-up last year. She plans to finish her associate degree at Salt Lake Community College and then complete a biology degree (which she has already begun) at BYU.
Later, after completing medical school, she would like to become a surgeon herself.
Working as a surgery tech provides a peek into the world of surgery and has helped Johnson decide to become a plastic surgeon.
“Plastic surgery is often given a negative connotation and looked at as a shallow field of surgery, but I feel so accomplished after we fix a cleft palate or remove a large scar,” she said.