Post-operative nurses provide intensive care to patients as they awaken from anesthesia after a surgical procedure. Because they typically have significant experience in a medical-surgical environment or in emergency medicine, they’re equipped to identify complications and intervene quickly.
Following surgery, the post-op nurse evaluates the patient’s condition and assesses when he’s ready to move to the post-anesthesia care unit, also called the PACU. For example, if his vital signs are not stable or if the surgical team encounters difficulties sealing off the incision site, the patient might need to remain in the operating room so the surgeon can intervene if complications arise. Once the post-op nurse determines the patient can safely be moved, she’ll transfer him to the PACU for continued care.
In the PACU, post-op nurses continually evaluate patients until they wake up and help them understand where they are and what’s going on as they awaken from the anesthesia. They typically oversee only a few patients at a time, allowing them to give the patients their undivided attention and quickly notice if anything goes wrong. By checking pulse and heart rate, post-op nurses can ensure the patient remains stable and that she’s coming out of the anesthesia as expected. They also ensure the patient stays comfortable, covering her with a blanket if she gets cold, a common side effect of anesthesia. In addition, they monitor the patient’s IV line, which delivers pain medication and other necessary drugs.
While many patients awaken from anesthesia without incident, post-op nurses are prepared to respond to nearly any complication. If the patient is frightened, the post-op nurse will speak to him in a reassuring voice to calm him. Patients sometimes have trouble breathing upon waking up, due to laying flat and in one position for great lengths of time. The post-op nurse will help the patient sit up, cough and breathe deeply to prevent pneumonia and aid in the elimination of anesthesia from the system. In dire circumstances, she might also insert a breathing tube or line.
Post-op nurses sometimes meet with patients and family members prior to surgery to explain how the anesthesia works and what they can expect. They'll also explain potential side effects or complications that can occur, such as a reaction to the medication or difficulty waking up from the anesthesia. The post-op nurse answers any questions patients or family members have and verifies they’re prepared for the surgery and for the after-effects of general anesthesia.