The Operating Room and the Temple

The temple is like the operating room; it has a special purpose, and special preparation is required to enter it.

by Alan B. Sanderson, MD

operating room and temple.png

On the first day of my medical school surgery rotation I set foot inside of an operating room (OR) to participate in a surgery for the first time. The patient had a rectal tumor, which my team was cutting out. She was positioned in stirrups on the table, and I had a front row seat to watch the work of the surgeons as I stood between her legs holding a retractor. I had seen human anatomy before in the cadaver lab, but I had never seen a living person’s bowels before that day. A loop of her intestines was hanging out of the surgical incision, and I could see its slow, squirming peristalsis movements. There was also blood, which we never saw in the cadaver lab because embalmed corpses have long since stopped bleeding.

After a short time I started to feel lightheaded. This was a familiar feeling for me, as I have a condition called vasovagal syncope which has caused me to pass out many times after receiving shots, experiencing minor injuries, or giving blood. Standing in the operating room that day I tried to fight against it, but when it became clear to me that I was going to faint I decided that it would be less embarrassing to speak up and let the surgeons know that I had to sit down than it would be to pass out and possibly fall forward into the sterile surgical field.

“I’ve gotta sit down,” I announced suddenly. “I’m sorry. I’m going to pass out.”

“It’s okay,” one of the surgery residents said. “Just sit down for a minute.” Vasovagal syncope is not a rare condition, so I expect that medical students pass out in the OR a few times a year.

As I sat on the floor at the edge of the room I felt the familiar sensations of presyncope wash over my body, eventually leaving me feeling fatigued and slightly sweaty, but thankfully still conscious. When I felt the sensation pass and was confident that my physiology was returning to normal I slowly stood up on my feet. Noticing that I stood up, the surgery resident turned to me and said, “Go out and get something to eat and drink, then come on back.” I was embarrassed, but glad that I hadn’t fainted and grateful to have a sympathetic surgery resident (and a sympathetic nervous system). Little did I know that the worst was yet to come.

So I staggered out of the room and down the hallway. When I found a nearby restroom I went in to gather my thoughts. One of my greatest fears was that my fainting tendency would interfere with my medical education. How would I make it through two months of surgery if this happened every day? Maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a doctor after all.

After several minutes I realized that I wasn’t alone in the room, because I could hear someone in the next stall. She got up and washed her hands at the sink. Then it hit me: “I’m in the girls’ room!” And it wasn’t just the women’s restroom, it was at the back of the surgery dressing room where women change in and out of their scrubs!

I waited for the woman at the sink to walk out, then I slowly opened the stall door and peeked out into the room. Thankfully I was alone, so I very quickly washed my hands and then bolted for the door! I made it out before anyone saw me, and after I got a drink of water I headed back to the OR and stayed for the rest of the procedure.

Despite the embarrassment of that first day, vasovagal syncope turned out to be a smaller problem than I had expected it to be, and I only had two such episodes in all of my 9 years of training. (And during the second episode thankfully I managed to stay out of the women’s restroom.)

A Privileged Location

The OR is a unique and fascinating place, different from anywhere else that I know of. Where else do human beings voluntarily submit themselves to being placed under anesthesia so that other human beings can cut them open and alter their anatomy using knives and other tools?

One striking aspect of the experience is the ritual hand washing and dressing. Outside of the OR you put on a hat, goggles, and a face mask. After scrubbing your hands and forearms for several minutes in a certain way, you walk into the OR and the nurse or scrub tech helps you put on a sterile gown and gloves. It takes a while to get used to working in a sterile environment, remembering what you can and cannot touch. I remember that my goggles always fogged up during surgery, and there was nothing I could do about it because I couldn’t touch my face or my goggles.

Only certain people are allowed inside of the OR during a procedure: the surgeon and anesthesiologist and their assistants, the scrub tech, the circulating nurse, and the patient. Obviously you don’t want a lot of random people wandering through during a surgery. I am not a surgeon, so I have never even set foot inside the OR in the hospital where I work, and I don’t think my ID badge would even get me in the door.

The House of the Lord

Many people wonder why the temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not open to the public, or even to all Church members. We love having visitors to our meetinghouses for Sunday worship services and other activities. So what is different about the temples?

The temple is like the operating room, although we don’t do anything like surgery there. It has a special purpose, and special preparation is required to enter it. As with the OR, the restricted access is not so much for secrecy as it is for security of the purpose and function of the place. So what happens inside of temples? The ordinances of the temple are sacred, so they are not discussed in detail outside of its walls, but a good summary of their purpose and content is found on the official Church website and in Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days.

There is nowhere else in the world like the temples of God. They are places set apart from the world, and are dedicated as the House of the Lord. We have been instructed by God to “not suffer any unclean thing to come unto it [the temple], and my presence shall be there. But if there come into it any unclean thing, my glory shall not be there, and my presence shall not come into it” (Doctrine and Covenants 94:8-9). As one who has spent hundreds of hours in the temple over the years, I can say that it is truly the House of God. The Spirit of the Lord reverberates within the walls of the temple like it does in no other building.


Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.

Related posts: Simultaneously on Both Sides of the Veil

About Alan Sanderson

I am a medical doctor, trail runner, and musician.
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