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San Joaquin Valley College Blog

Grad Q&A with Surgical Technology graduate Marlena Cota

September 23, 2021

SJVC Surgical Technology grad Marlena CotaMarlena Cota knew the retail and food services jobs of her early twenties would not give her young son, Zachary, the life she wanted for him. But her mom, Margie, and other family members were not so sure the medical field was right for Marlena when she announced to them one day that she was going to be a Surgical Technologist.

“I used to faint in hospitals,” says Marlena. “The first time, I was seventeen and the smell of the hospital, all the bodily fluids just made me sick. So, when I told my mom this is what I want to do, she was, ‘Are you sure?’.”

That little internal voice seemed pretty certain.


What convinced you to give this career a shot?

A couple of years earlier my brother got in a really bad car accident, and I stayed with him in the hospital for a week. All the nursing staff were just so very nice, patient and would explain things to us in a way we could understand. They were wonderful. I consider myself a nice person and I thought this is something I’d really like to do.


Why SJVC’s Surgical Technology program?

I was Googling different schools for Surg Tech on one of my shifts at a retail store when someone came in in SJVC scrubs. I’m a big person on signs from the universe so I asked him where he went to school and did they have a Surgical Technology program. He said they were just about to start one. I got home that day and called them.

I went to their (Temecula campus) Open House and the Program Director and faculty were there showing instruments and answering questions. They wanted to make sure this is really what you want to do and explained what to expect from the program and your career afterwards.


What made you say ‘Yes’?

The class schedule would let me keep my work hours and my child’s daycare was nearby. We were living with my mom at the time, so she definitely helped me occasionally, keeping my son distracted so I could study and get things done.

I felt this is the right step and I’m making the right choices right now. It was perfect for me!


Was the Surgical Technology program difficult?

School was sometimes hard and I’m hard on myself. Learning something new like practice for surgeries – none of us had any experience and we all felt overwhelmed. But having other people in your corner, we bonded. And  classmates and faculty are there to help you; you’re not alone. I would definitely say that Mr. Alfonso Martin (faculty) played a big part in that support. Someone in your corner telling you, ‘I know this is hard, but you can do it’ is very motivating.

A lot of us would go in early to practice. Repetition helped a lot. We all bonded. There were so many times we laughed out loud.


What did you struggle with the most?

For me the greatest struggle was just finding that motivation every, single day. There were definitely days when you just wanted to throw in the towel. I’d tell myself, ‘Maybe now’s not the time; maybe wait until my son’s older.’ Then, I’d tell myself ‘I can do this. This bad moment will pass.’ And it did.


What was your inspiration to stick with your program, your plan, your goals?

As I further my education and my career my son will always play a huge part in that. But also, my mom. She was a single mom, too, and even though she didn’t go to college, she always had that strong mindset: if something is really what you want – do it. She’s always been my backbone. She raised me to be independent, but I know she’s always there if I absolutely need her. It’s also nice to know that I’m making her proud.


What was it like to do your externship in an actual medical facility and practice everything you learned with professional medical staff and very real patients?

It felt like the light at the end of the tunnel. Working so hard this long and to finally get out there and put the skills we had learned to use was nerve-wracking, but you’re excited at the same time. When you’re in school it’s like this isn’t real surgery. But when you get out there it is real surgery.

All of these months of feeling like I wanted to give up in school; I’m really happy that I pushed myself this far. It felt good for me because I knew I’d made the right choice.


You are working full-time in the career of your choosing. Any regrets? Any surprises? Any fainting?

There were no surprises. I got everything I was expecting to get. I am a Certified Surgical Technologist for a Level I trauma center where I started almost two years ago.

I love surgery and everything about it. I get to see and touch things! I get to hold organs – it’s like a once in a lifetime thing. My family is so surprised that I’ve gone from nausea to enthralled.


What are your primary responsibilities as a Surg Tech?

Our hospital has 11 Operating Rooms and we run about 8 of them at any one time, treating trauma of every kind. We have been at capacity, which is not a good thing.

I set up the operating room back table with correct instruments, supplies and equipment, then assist the surgeon during the surgical procedure by handing instruments and helping retract, sometimes. In the operating room a nurse and ST are present at times.

Sometimes I work beside the Da Vinci robot, which has four instrument arms, an the  surgeon is at the console station. It is more labor-intensive, and the ST is going to be very much involved. It is probably my least favorite thing to do, but it’s just another day in the OR.


What advice would you give to someone else who might be considering a career as a Surgical Technologist?

I would definitely tell them to keep pushing forward. I know that sounds easier said than done, but at the end of the day, even if you have a support system of family and friends, you need to be the one who is 100% into it. It’s really going to come down to your mind and your will.


What is your vision for your future?

I’m just finishing my pre-reqs for Registered Nursing. During Covid (at the hospital), I got sent to ICU (Intensive Care Unit) because in natural disasters we are mandated to work in any capacity needed. I’m not a nurse, but just being able to work together as a team with them for about three months and see different interaction, gave me a feeling I cannot ignore.

And as a mom I wanted to do a little more to provide financial stability for myself and my son, who is now 4-years old. I love being a Surg Tech but to be a Registered Nurse First Assist (RNFA), I can scrub in and do things a ST cannot necessarily do.

I have one more class to take before I can apply next Spring. If things go well, that will allow me to start a nursing program next Fall. Here’s hoping!

Read Our Career Guide On Surgical Technology In California

Surgical technologists, also known as operating room technicians, have a huge role in the preparation for operations. They set up operating rooms, arrange equipment and help doctors during surgeries.

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