“There’s a lot at stake” - meet the team changing lives

4 August 2023

When imagining a surgical procedure, we can all picture a tray of neatly aligned surgical instruments ready to be used by surgeons and nurses. But how many of us know about the journey these surgical instruments take to reach theatres, and the dedicated team which ensure they get there?

Meet the team at our decontamination unit in Chalkmill Drive. Working tirelessly behind the scenes they collect, decontaminate, and redistribute the medical devices which enable our hospital procedures to take place.

There are two areas of work undertaken at the unit, which is the largest off-site decontamination unit in the country: sterile services, which process surgical instruments, and endoscopy reprocessing.

Having continually expanded both their team and their reach across London since the unit was built in 2019, staff can now process up to 45,000 endoscopes and seven million instruments a year.

Before trays of equipment can be sent back to hospitals for use, they go through a rigorous decontamination process, one that the team take pride in following.

Trusting the process

Colin Knight, sterile services production manager, has worked in decontamination for over 30 years. He said: “There can be a misunderstanding of what decontamination does and how we work. There’s a meticulous process that has to be followed.”

Once trays arrive from the hospitals, they are sent to the washroom for inspection before sending it through the washer which washes off 99.9% of contaminants. Technicians in the cleanroom remove each instrument for inspection and check for damages, dirt and any discrepancies in the set before carefully wrapping them up. The final tray is sent through a steam autoclave or a low temperature steriliser to remove any last live contaminants before being dispatched to its hospital.

Amanda Briskey, customer and production co-ordinator, said: “The equipment has to go through what it does for it to be safe to use. Our technicians have to learn thousands of instruments by name and by sight – everyone is constantly learning. When we process equipment, we know it might not be used on a stranger. It could be used on a family member or even yourself.”

“People are amazed at what checks are entailed in our work,” said Vimla Ahir, one of the technicians. “There can be pressure to get the tray finished as soon as possible, but we also have to make sure we don’t make a mistake. It’s important to do the job right so the tray can be used for the procedure when it arrives.”

Diane Lumley, head of decontamination, explained her role, "I help manage decontamination across all RFL sites, ensuring they are complaint with policies, procedures and following current guidelines. At the decontamination unit, the work ethic is very much team based and we work together to ensure the service remains second to none”.

Passion makes perfect

Calvin Oummadi, deputy transport and logistics manager, said: “Every set we process will be used on a patient and will change their lives. You go home from work and know you’ve done something good. We have to be able to adapt quickly here, but everyone has that same vision in mind and that’s what keeps you going.”

Colin added: “Our work is completely unique compared to other roles in the health service and you grow a passion for it. What we produce will help the patient and our final product saves lives.”

“The work we do in the unit serves every single patient who goes into the hospital for a minor procedure or big operation,” said Vimla. “I love my job because of how important it is. What we do is always for the patient.”

Mark Sibbons, general manager, explained the impact his team make. “Every single day, they make a difference. You can walk away knowing you’ve impacted on someone’s life. If you’ve worked on a heart surgery set, a caesarean set, a transplant set – that's several people who are waiting for those operations that you’ve supported.”

Keeping it green

The transport and logistics staff at the unit manage over 1,000 deliveries, and growing, to hospital sites each month with a fleet of 12 vehicles. To successfully transport an average of over 5,000 trays every week, deliveries are made to sites throughout the week including at night and the weekend.

With a considerable number of journeys being made, the team have put sustainability at the forefront. They have brought in more electric vehicles and are looking to take more steps to make their work greener now the fleet has expanded.

Calvin said: “We’re always working towards a greener approach and sustainability is a key priority. We want to bring in even more electric vehicles and we’re also looking at how we can improve our waste to enhance our sustainability and improve our services.”

Our role

The repurposing and delivery of endoscopes and instruments from the unit is vital to the running of RFL’s procedures.

“Without the correct and functioning equipment from the unit, surgeons aren’t able to do their jobs,” said Vimla. “When I see my shelf empty at the end of the day, I’m satisfied I’ve done my job. Then it’s time for nurses and surgeons to do theirs. Everyone works together to create the end result for the patient.”

Adem Adem, stores officer, said: “There’s a lot at stake. If someone misses out an item on a tray, it will have an impact in theatres: a procedure that a patient could have been waiting months for might be cancelled and there’ll be costs to that.”

“The staff here have a huge responsibility. If a mistake is made, it’ll be the patients who are impacted,” added Mark Sibbons. “During Covid, all healthcare staff were under immense pressure, especially staff at the frontline. But through it all, my team were in the background still supplying equipment – that's what I take the most pride in.”

Expanding their portfolio

As well as delivering decontamination services to the RFL, their clients include several other major hospitals and private sector clients across London and their portfolio continues to expand.

Fatma Kafal, sterile services production manager, said, “I’m working on our newest project, taking on Great Ormand Street Hospital as a new client. It’s exciting to welcome on board such a large children’s hospital, and it’s great our reputation is extending.”

Our doors are always open

The working environment in the unit is unlike any other. With desk space, boardrooms and site tours available, the team is always keen to welcome our colleagues.

Calvin says, “I’d recommend for others across the trust to learn more about the decontamination process and see what happens to the instruments you might use or see being used. There’s a lot behind our work - come and visit the decontamination unit and see for yourself.”