You might call them a surgeon's extra set of hands. Surgical technologists gown and glove the surgeon, hand instruments to the surgeon and may retract the patient's wound for the surgeon to gain greater access.

It's not a job for the faint of heart, according to Marie Smith, a certified surgical technologist who works with neurosurgeons at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis ( "You don't know if you can handle it until you get into the OR," she said.

Having what it takes

Surgical technologists need to be assertive, well-organized people who are good communicators. "There are some strong personalities in the room, and you have to be able to hold your own," Smith said.

She works with several neurologists, and finds out each morning what types of surgeries she'll assist with, from back and neck surgeries to craniotomies. The procedures average two to three hours each.

"There are only two sterile people in the room and it's me and the surgeon," Smith said. "I have to make sure that my field maintains sterile that nobody gets too close to my instruments. I set it up and I make sure that according to the physician's preference, he has everything that he needs because every doctor has different needs."

Learning the ropes

Smith learned surgical technology in a 16-month program at St. Mary's University in Minneapolis ( She appreciated the opportunity to practice after-hours with instructors at Maplewood Surgery Center. "They really do push you and they want you to do a good job," she said.

Students study anatomy, physiology, microbiology, pharmacology, health care ethics, medical terminology, operating room theory and two labs to apply the theory, according to Becky Brodin, director of the surgical technology program at St. Mary's. They spend their fourth semester in clinical settings, gaining at least 500 hours of experience working with a preceptor.

The average starting salary in the Twin Cities for surgical technologists is $46,000 a year, Brodin said. After a recessionary slump, hiring is picking up again, she added. Most work in hospitals, but some find jobs in stand-alone surgery centers.

"For the most part it's really a fun job because it's physical and you have to use your head," Brodin said. "You're never alone. You're always part of a team."