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On the Job with: Charolette Bell

In Central Sterile, employees like Charolette Bell are instrumental.

Deep in the basement of the Weinberg Building, amid the thumping and gurgling of huge washers, the rumbling of a conveyer belt and the clatter of instruments onto metal tables, Charolette Bell examines piles of retractors, suction devices, dissecting scissors and the occasional power drill. Her gloved hands move swiftly but surely. She checks to see if each stainless-steel instrument is clean. She tosses aside for replacement any that are bent or damaged.

Bell is an instrument processor in Central Sterile Processing. Here, instruments are cleaned, organized and prepared for use. About 9,500 instrument sets are sterilized each month, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Soiled instruments come down from the operating rooms, intensive care units, labor and delivery, fetal assessment clinic, dental clinic, radiology and some research labs. At each step of the sterilization process, instruments are logged into computers so they can be easily found. “You need to be strong, patient and nosey for details,” says Bell.

“The first step of the process is decontamination,” explains Ernest Truax, manager of Central Sterile Processing, who oversees 35 employees. Instruments are loaded into metal mesh baskets and placed in automated washers that remove blood and body fluids. Next, the instruments are assembled, inspected and wrapped into sets or packaged into locked metal containers for sterilization. Carts filled with the instruments are wheeled into giant sterilizers. Once removed, the instrument sets are quarantined until cool enough to handle, when they are taken to the operating room storeroom until needed. The entire process takes four to six hours.

Depending on which station she is assigned to, Bell’s job changes daily. On this day, she is inspecting instruments after they come off the conveyer belt, all stuffed in wire baskets. She identifies each numbered instrument and determines which set it belongs to. Like all employees in her department, she is dressed in surgical attire. When working in decontamination, she puts on personal protection equipment such as goggles, gloves and resistant gowns.

The 44-year-old mother of two has been working at Hopkins Hospital for 17 years. She was even born here. Before assuming her present job, she was a nurse assistant in the general operating room. But the prospect of working in Central Sterile always fascinated her. “I would come down here during my lunch hour and watch,” she says. As soon as a job opening occurred, Bell switched. She then spent a year training on the job, learning to identify the instrument sets and how to package them.

With its out-of-the-way location and two smaller satellite instrument-processing areas tucked away in Wilmer and Carnegie, Central Sterile could be one of Hopkins’ best-kept secrets. But as Bell proudly notes: “We’re really the heart of the hospital.”

—Lydia Levis Bloch



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