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Although most infants start learning words from listening to their parents converse, Columbus native Kelly Wendt’s first glimpse into the English language came from watching her parents' hands move.

With both of her caregivers being deaf, sign language became second nature at a very young age.

“I grew up with sign language my entire life – it was my first language,” said Wendt, a surgical technologist at Columbus Community Hospital. “It was all I knew.”

Her unique skillset in 2012 propelled her into the hospital, where she served as a sign language interpreter for some time before deciding to expand upon her education with the end goal of tackling a career in the operating room.

It turned out to be a pretty solid move. Recently, the Scotus Central Catholic graduate was named the 2019 Surgical Technologist of the Year by the Nebraska State Assembly of the Association of Surgical Technologists. The award is presented annually to one state surgical technologist who stands out at his or her job, which consists of assisting before, during and after surgical operations by preparing operating rooms, arranging equipment and acting as an integral member of the surgical team.

“We were fortunate to have her here for clinical rotations and saw her potential from the beginning,” said Sue Hrnicek, director of Surgical Services at CCH, through a released statement. “We actually hired her full time while she was still a student so that we would not lose her to another facility … Since she started, she has worked to educate and elevate everyone’s practices for sterile technique. She is the first volunteer to precept students and new staff members … and she actively seeks out opportunities for growth.”

The honor bestowed upon Wendt came as a complete surprise. Wendt said that she was told she was needed in the emergency room to complete some sign language interpretation.

“I was supposed to be doing a surgery, and they pulled me and said, ‘hey, we need you to interpret.’ And I walked down there and they opened the door to this big meeting room, and the first people I see is my whole entire family. So it went from, ‘what is going on?,’ and then they told me what the award was. And then it was surprise, then shock and then emotional.”

Although receiving such an honor undoubtedly is a milestone in the surgical technologist’s career, reaching this point took a lot of work. The first portion of Wendt’s career was spent teaching pre-kindergarten and working as a day care provider for 12 years. She noted that she always had an interest regarding working in the medical field and started looking into a possible career in radiology.

Around the time she started serving as an interpreter at CCH, Wendt actually ended up in the operating room to have an elective surgery completed. She was awake during the procedure, something that on its face is seemingly insignificant, however, it ended up being a game-changer for the patient.

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“I was talking with the nurses in the OR (operating room) and I was explaining to them, I said, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about going back to school for nursing or radiology, give me some input.’ And one of the ladies said, ‘you should go back to school for surgical tech.’”

So she did. After knocking out her general education credits at Central Community College-Columbus, Wendt spent the next 15 months studying at Southeast Community College in Lincoln. She said that she felt right at home immediately once she started her schooling.

“I loved it from the beginning,” she said. “I’m a hands-on type of person, and I loved the fact that I could be involved in surgery. It was … I can’t even explain how it made me feel.”

After completing three quarters of clinicals in Norfolk, brief stints in Omaha and also Columbus, Wendt jumped into her new profession at CCH. She learned the ins and outs of all the procedures that she would be assisting with. She realized pretty quickly that it was necessary to pick up and learn all of the different surgeons’ mannerisms, temperaments, tendencies and quirks – she had to know what they were thinking before they even called her name.

“My job is to anticipate what he needs next,” she said of the doctors she works with. “One of the biggest things with being a surgical tech is learning the surgeries, knowing what’s going to be happening during the surgery and then knowing each surgeons preferences … Even if you go to a brand new facility, you are going to know the basis and background of everything, but there will still be new things you have to learn, because every surgeon is different …”

Now an established surgical tech, Wendt has somewhat reversed her role. She still is a student of her art, learning all the time, but she has been able to take what she knows and turn that into teachable moments for others.

Once a student of Southeast Community College, Wendt now spends a portion of her time working for the institute, teaching a lab course in Norfolk for other students anxiously waiting to scrub in on a surgery inside of the OR.

With everything coming somewhat full circle, it’s all a bit strange for the award recipient.

“It is very surreal,” Wendt said. “And it is kind of amazing, because now that I teach students who are brand new at it; the small simple things that I used to think were so hard – just gowning and gloving the proper way, now I watch them struggle with it and to me, I’m like, ‘this is the easiest thing.’ But I think back and I’m like, ‘I remember when I was there.’”

Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at sam.pimper@lee.net.

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News Editor

Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram, Schuyler Sun and The Banner-Press newspapers. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2015.

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