Thoughts on the Vasovagal Response

I grew up as the daughter of (at the time) a veterinary technician. My grandmother was an EMT. My cousins are all either nurses or working in the health field. My aunt is a nurse midwife. I have been surrounded by blood and gore and gut stories my entire life. It doesn’t much bother me anymore. 

I volunteer at Central Maine Medical Center’s Emergency Department, where I’ve seen some fairly messy things. I’ve watched quite a few surgeries… on dogs. But up until now, I’ve never actually witnessed a surgery performed on a human being, in person.

I was given some advice from Britt, “Eat a good breakfast.” The first time she watched a surgery, she passed out. This is a clinically-proven condition. It is called the Vasovagal Response.

And honestly, I knew that some people were prone to being more susceptible to fainting or nausea while observing surgical procedures. But I was certain it would not be me.

To be completely sure I would not faint or vomit during the procedures I was to observe, I followed the advice given: I ate a big breakfast. I drank coffee with sugar in it. I drank water. I even watched several videos on YouTube of the vein procedure I was going to be watching.

So game day shows up, and I’ve done all these things. I know what to expect, what incisions are to be made, what will occur… I’m prepared. I’ve done my research.

The patient is prepped, and Dr. Donegan begins narrating what he’s doing to the surgical site. As he is inserting catheters into the patient’s veins and pumping … 

… As he starts pumping in a lidocane – something solution, I begin to go slightly fuzzy. Dr. Donegan explained to me what he was doing, what he was injecting… but I… Just… sort of got all sweaty and tingly…

Did I mention my cousin was scrubbed in on the procedure as a surgical assistant? No? Well, Lisa, my cousin, is scrubbed in.

And she notices that my lips and face are completely white. I’m trying to focus on Dr. Donegan and his narration, but I’m feeling more spinny as time goes by. My cousin points behind me and mouths “SIT DOWN,” just at the point where I was literally going to vomit up my breakfast, and then pass out.

I do as Lisa says, and I sit down on the rolling chair behind me. My face is tingling, and my heart is beating furiously. My brain, however, is saying, “What are you doing!? Get up! This is not even the part that should be freaking you out! It’s JUST VEINS.”

But the problem is, the Vasovagal is a legitimate clinical response to the body’s perceived “stress.” I must have been stressed, because my body was ready to remove me from the situation.

After being seated for a few minutes and feeling like I’ve regained some of my composure (But none of my pride), I stand up. And immediately sit back down. I sit for the entire first procedure. I observe, ask questions, and listen, but I do not try to stand up again. Dr. Donegan has the gleam of a smirk in his eyes, but he doesn’t embarrass me. 

After the procedure, I got a glass of water, walked around, and then willed myself to not repeat what just happened. (Even though we have just discussed that the Vasovagal reaction is actually physiological, and I have no control over it.) And you know what? I didn’t feel nausea the second time around.

Conclusion?

For goodness sake, don’t think you’re above feeling faint the first time you witness surgery.  And bring your cousin when you have your first observation. 

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One thought on “Thoughts on the Vasovagal Response

  1. I was a Vet Tech for a few years. Trying to decide if I had what it takes to be a surgeon. I could hold onto the length of an intestine and I never got one bit queasy. But the knife would never be something I wanted to be in my hand. I did research after that and cut open lots of rats. It was the living part that got me. That I could kill a healthy animal that was someone’s pet.

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