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Employee Jubilee
A Hopkins Hospital veteran reflects on 50 years of service.

blank Drew Diskin
  Catherine Yates arrives early to mentally prepare for surgeries.

Four years ago, Catherine Yates sat spellbound watching Something the Lord Made, the HBO film about Hopkins heart surgery pioneers Alfred Blalock and his assistant, Vivien Thomas. A surgical technician, Yates found the documentary gripping not only because she could relate to the tense operating room milieu, but because she herself had assisted Blalock and Thomas in the early 1960s.

Yates says she didn’t recognize then how skilled they were, nor how important the two men would become. Equally surprising to Yates is the realization that 50 years have passed since her first day on the job. Even by Hopkins standards, where job longevity is almost double that of the average American (9.6 years versus five years), half a century at the same job is almost unheard of.

Recently, she was honored during Employee Recognition Week.

One of seven children, Yates was raised on a farm about 55 miles west of Richmond, Va. When the opportunity arose, she relocated to Baltimore with family friends. “I can’t remember how or why,” she says, “but I just knew I had to work at Johns Hopkins.”

So, in December 1958, at age 21, Yates began her career as a nurse’s aide, learning everything on the job. Two years later, her supervisor encouraged her to become a surgical tech. At first, recalls Yates, she was intimidated by all the instruments she had to learn about. “But,” she says, “several people held my hand so I would succeed.”

Succeed she did. Yates, one of two surgical techs on her General Operating Room service on Blalock 2, has assisted surgeons on hundreds of cases, including gunshot wounds and kidney transplants. Her favorite surgeries are the “triple-A,” abdominal aortic aneurysm repair, and the Whipple procedure, both complicated operations. Yates explains her preference for big cases: “I go home exhausted, but I feel like I accomplished something.”

What does it take to be a skilled surgical tech? “You’ve got to be cross-eyed,” says Yates, “with one eye on what the doctor’s doing and the other eye on the sterile field. And you’ve got to know exactly where the tools are—because if you’ve got a bleeder, that’s no time to try to find something.”

Yates has had her share of bad days but has never considered quitting. “I get fed up because I’m tired,” she says. “But I get over things fast.” Like Vivien Thomas, in the early days Yates experienced overt discrimination. One supervisor told her, “We hire blacks to do the dirty work.” Though comments like that were hurtful, says Yates, she refused to let them intimidate her. Today, when asked what’s changed the most about Hopkins over the years, Yates says, “attitudes
toward black people. There’s so much more respect—we’re a team.”

On the technology front, Yates marvels at modern medicine. Pointing to the endovascular center, where interventional radiology increasingly provides less invasive alternatives to surgery, she says, “Procedures take much less time, and if a doctor needs special equipment that will help him do the case better, we get it.”

One thing Yates misses, however, is going on rounds with doctors after surgeries. “I guess there’s just no more time for that.” Still, Yates maintains warm relationships with several surgeons, including James Black, Bruce Perler and John Cameron, who operated on Yates eight years ago for colorectal cancer. "Catherine represents the best Hopkins has to offer," says Perler. "She's incredibly competent, conscientious and caring and has a real knack for working in a challenging environment."

At 71, Yates still works every day, from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and has no plans to retire. Widowed 11 years, she spends her time off with her two children and two grandchildren. For fun she heads to Atlantic City casinos with friends, occasionally with a Hopkins surgeon and his wife. Winning big is nice, says Yates, but nothing gives her more pleasure than hearing someone say to a surgical tech, “You’re scrubbing with Miss Catherine, you’re scrubbing with the best.”

— Judy Minkove



Johns Hopkins Medicine

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