When surgeons perform a “36 hour operation” what exactly are they doing?


What exactly are they doing the entirety of those hours? Are they literally just cutting and stitching and suctioning the entire time? Do they have breaks?

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14 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

They do it in stages – different specialists will handle different stages of the complicated operation, while the others wait their turn, rest, eat, and prepare. No one surgeon can do everything in these procedures, and even if they could, it would be incredibly unsafe to have one person working for that long without rest or food.

So one team, say a vascular surgery team, will come in and do all of the work needed around veins and arteries. Once their portion is done, and they’ve made sure there are no unexpected complications, they’ll tag out, and a team of orthopedic specialists will come in to do work on the bone, and so on.

Anonymous 0 Comments

different doctors and different teams takes turns working on the patient, while others rest.

Much like in construction, it takes different specialties to do different things. Neurosurgeons stitch together the nerves or separate brain tissue, vascular surgeons cut or reconnect the blood vessels, GI surgeons deal with intenstines, orthopedists deal with bones and joints, oncologist might check things for cancer tumors if that’s a concern, etc.

36 hours is not a routine procedure, they might find something unexpected, and then take the time to consult another specialist, or bring in imaging machine to get a better idea of what’s going on.

They might restore blood flow to one part of the body, then wait a bit to see if all works as intended, then proceed to the next part.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Those were some excellent answers. Makes me wonder what happened behind the scenes when my 2 hr surgery turned into 8.

Edit: since this has gained numerous comments… I had a hysterectomy and I was just supposed to lose the uterus but when they went in it turns out that I had torsion on an ovary and necrosis of some thing and the endometriosis was one of the worst they’d ever seen so they spent the entire time cleaning me out except for what was covering my intestines.

Edit edit: some of these answers have me rolling.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Some of the longest surgeries are the separation of conjoined twins. Very delicate work most of the time, sometimes brutal work of cutting apart conjoined bones, lots of vascular and neural surgery that is tricky because the full vein or nerve may not be in the normal place.

Anonymous 0 Comments

IIRC a liver transplant is one of the longest standard operations given at 12-14 hours. 36 hours had to be some complications to say the least.

Anonymous 0 Comments

My personal record is about 24 hours and I was involved in the entire procedure. It was a gigantic tumor in a teenager and just took that long to peel it out of his skull base, stop the bleeding, close the various holes we made, etc.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Depending on the case. If it’s multi-specialty, you take turns. Longest i’ve done was 18 hours all us. We were exhausted but we did it all. It was a full pelvic exenteration.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Neurosurgeon here.

About 1-3 hours of that time is taken to get the patient under general anesthesia. This may involve placing monitors for blood pressure management and big catheters for blood transfusions and administering drugs. The patient has to be put to sleep and the breathing tube placed. At the end of the surgery the patient has to wake up from the drugs and the breathing tube taken out (if this is planned).

A significant portion of the time is then spent after making the incision(s) dissecting down to the area of interest for the surgery. This may involve various different teams. For example if we were removing a tumor from the thoracic spinal cord this may involve cardiothoracic surgeons to help us get into the chest to get in front of the spine. Getting good exposure to the site of surgery is as important as the ability to do the surgery itself.

Once the area of interest is exposed the delicate part of the surgery might take place. If we are taking out a tumor from a delicate area of the brain or near the spinal cord, just chipping away at the tumor and taking small blood vessels to cut blood flow to the tumor may take 12 hours itself.

Now this is the part where complications may happen intraoperatively that if not addressed right then and there can cause serious issues. Sometimes a significant amount of time can be spent correcting these iatrogenically caused issues. These are where all the “routine” complications that are common with the surgery can be addressed. For example if we are doing spine surgery and we unintentionally cut into the covering over the spinal cord (the dura) then it may add hours to try to repair the tear under the microscope.

After part of the surgery sometimes the surgeon wants some interval imaging to see where they are at with the goals of surgery. The incision may temporarily be closed and the patient might go to an MRI to see if there is any residual tumor (if it is a brain tumor) or perhaps an angiogram procedure to see if the vascular lesion is all gone (if say we were clipping multiple aneurysm). Afterwards the patient might return to the operating room for final closure. Maybe this could take an hour or two.

If there is more work to be done it is possible you may need to do 12 more hours of work to get the last piece of tumor out or ligate the blood vessels you have to go complete the surgery. Maybe after this the surgeon might elect to go get ANOTHER MRI or angiogram to confirm that they are truly done with the goals they intended to achieve. It is possible that they send a piece of the tumor to the pathologists so they can freeze it and section it and get the diagnosis back to the surgeon so they can decide whether they need to respect the entire tumor or if they can leave some behind. This may take up to an hour.

Next is the closure of the surgical site. Depending on how deep they are inside the body this could take hours. If another type of surgeon helped expose the surgical site, often they come back in to surgery to help close the site.

At the end of the surgery, depending on what type of surgery it is and what the expected recovery of the patient is, it is possible the patient may get other surgeries done during the same general anesthesia session. For example if we take a huge tumor out of the brainstem area and we expect the patient to have significant swallowing issues due to disruption of the nerves that control swallowing, maybe they will need a stomach tube (gastric tube) to be fed through a tube in the future, or even a tracheostomy (breathing tube) so that they can recover postoperatively. This can take 4+ hours.

All in all this can add up to 36 hours but it is truly rare to go that long (at least in neurosurgery). If you are going to do that we usually like to stage the surgery over two different surgical episodes. For example if you have a giant tumor in your spine and you need the tumor removed from the spine from the front and screws and rods placed from the back you might do the back part on the first day, let the patient recover a little bit and then take them back for the front part.

And yeah the surgeons have breaks. The residents will go for breaks while the attending operates and vice versa. Multiple attendings will give each other breaks. The anesthesiologists will switch out multiple times. The longest surgery I’ve been in lasted around 36 hours. As a resident in that surgery I watched the metro train which is outside the OR window go by at least a hundred times.

Anonymous 0 Comments

We (the surgeons) take breaks. 10-15 minutes here and there for the longer operations. Enough time to pee and grab coffee and a snack. Anesthesia are very good about giving each other breaks during EVERY operation, and the techs and circulators also rotate in and out.

Anonymous 0 Comments

I can contribute to this. I’m a urologist, and though I’ve never done a 36 hour surgery (those are very, very rare) I have done 16-18 hour surgeries. We removed a kidney with a tumor that extended to the heart, and was plastered to the liver. We opened up and exposed the kidney (3-4 hours), and then allowed the transplant surgeons to step in. Though it wasn’t a transplant, they deal extensively with hepatobiliary surgery, so they spent 2-4 hours carefully resecting the kidney from the liver to assure there was no damage to surrounding organs/vasculature. Then the cardiothoracic surgeons took over, put the patient on bypass, and opened the right atrium to visualize the tumor. They removed the cardiac portion and closed the heart to resume natural circulation (5-7 hours). Our team took back over to transect the kidney vasculature and removed the kidney (2-3 hours). Closure took some time after that.

These huge surgeries, as others have noted, take an extensive amount of time and multiple surgical teams to complete.