The following is a guest post by Anita Lesko, a Nurse Anesthetist. The content may be mildly unsettling for some readers.
The shrill sound of bone saws. Bright lights. The harsh smell of bone cement. Many people talking at once. Different tones of beeping from the heart monitor, oxygen sensor, and ventilator going. Heavy metal music blasting from a speaker right near me. Sounds of hammering from big orthopedic equipment. Oh, yes, I forgot to mention, I have a patient’s life in my hands. It’s not for the faint of heart. Least of all, it’s not the environment you’d expect to find an autistic person working in.
Yet each weekday morning I’m up at 3:00 am to get ready for work in the operating room as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, doing anesthesia for major surgery. It isn’t an easy job for anyone, but toss in being autistic and the job gets even tougher.
I wasn’t even diagnosed with autism until age 50. I went my entire life not knowing why I was different and never fit in. It wasn’t until one evening while at work when a co-worker told me about her son getting diagnosed, and I was then looking at her papers that I realized I’m on the spectrum. I got formally diagnosed three weeks later.
Embarking on my career wasn’t easy, because there are so many issues to contend with in the operating room regarding sensory violations, that I had to learn to cope with it all. Back when I was in my training at Columbia University and the big New York City hospitals, I didn’t know I’m autistic. I didn’t learn this until six years ago. So, in my now 28-year career, the first 22 years were spent wondering why all the extreme levels of stimuli never seemed to bother anyone else in the operating room.
I have done over 50,000 cases to date, and have interacted with over 1 million people! This is quite a fete for an autistic person! I have to interact with endless people each day in preparation for each case. The patient, their family, the surgeons, the OR staff, the anesthesiologist, and other staff. Back in the beginning, it was so painfully difficult for me to do this. Yet because I’ve done it over and over, it got easier all the time.
I want to show others on the spectrum, and their families, that you CAN achieve great things. You do, however, have to push yourself beyond your comfort zone. Yes, it is easy to stay in the safety zone of your home. But you’ll never achieve anything by not stepping out the door and follow your dreams.
Each weekday I do the impossible. I go to my job and spend 10 or more hours working with an ocean of neurotypicals. I must keep up with them or else I’d sink. I know many people on the autism spectrum who do have a job, which is great. But they either work for themselves, or work at some type of job which involves many others on the spectrum, or a job where there’s neurotypicals who are working for autism. There’s no one else who’s working a high-stress, fast-paced job like I am, with all neurotypicals, and the job is working in the operating room.
Yes, I’m mentally drained by the end of each day. Much more so than all my co-workers. I listen to them in the locker room at the end of each day talking about how exhausted they are. My exhaustion goes far beyond theirs because they are not autistic. The massive sensory overload I endure does take a toll on me. But somehow I have built up a tolerance to be able to withstand it and function at my job.
I developed this ability over time, from doing it all over and over again. What I do demonstrate is that despite being autistic, I was able to gradually build that tolerance.
I aspire to be an inspiration to others on the autism spectrum, that if I can do this, so can you. I feel like a magician, that I’m able to perform magic each day on the job. From all these years I demonstrate that I am the master of the impossible, to do a job so demanding, so fast-paced, so high-stress, and also with constant change. Each patient presents with a different medical history, the type of surgery, and medications they are taking. All that affects the type and way each anesthetic is administered. I’ve also learned to be flexible and spontaneous to adapt to the daily changes that present themselves.
Over the years, I had to step outside my comfort zone. Of course it was scary. But I did it. And you can too!