By Matt Skoufalos
In the 15 years that she has worked in medicine, surgical technologist Bunyaporn “Bonnie” Toronjo has supported countless patients during their most vulnerable moments.
She’s held the hand of a still-conscious Parkinson’s patient during an open cranial operation, listening as the surgeon asked whether the tremors subsided as the procedure progressed. She’s worked an 18-hour on-call during the separation of conjoined twins. She’s helped children through repeat operations to repair trauma sustained in accidents.
Through it all, Toronjo has relished being part of a team that made patients’ lives better.
“Before I had kids, it made me feel fulfilled to be part of a team that made their lives better,” she said. “We helped get them back to a little sense of normalcy.”
Toronjo began her career in medicine with a certificate program at Oklahoma City Community College, and continued on with a bachelor’s in applied science at Siena Heights University. Now she’s pursuing an MBA while helping train the next generation of scrub techs at North Central Texas College in Corinth, Texas.
Born in Bangkok, Thailand, Toronjo moved with her parents to Norman, Oklahoma as a child. After high school, she “spent a little bit of time lost,” having gone straight to college without a concentration in mind. Browsing through the course catalogue led her to an information session about the school’s surgical technologist program, and Toronjo “decided I wanted to go out in the world and make something of myself.”
It was a little intimidating at first.
“I was one of those people who didn’t like the sight of blood,” Toronjo said. “It was like the difference between watching the Discovery Channel versus having things happening to you. I would pass out every time someone would come at me with a needle.”
“For the first few months, I was a deer in the headlights because it was so much stimulation,” she said. “It was amazing to be able to go into surgery and see how it all happened.”
After a while, however, Toronjo knew she was in the right place. She found her groove in the rhythm of the work, and was good enough to land a job offer before she’d even graduated. She picked up and headed out to Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas – just far enough away to move out of her family home, just close enough to visit on weekends.
“I always knew that I wanted to work in a big city,” Toronjo said. “When I did clinicals, Oklahoma University Medical Center was my favorite site. It was a level-one trauma center; they had all the up-to-date type of technology, and really exciting cases. I knew that I wanted to go to a city where I could see that. Dallas was the most obvious.”
From 2003 to 2007, Toronjo scrubbed as an orthopedic trauma tech, and then moved into supply chain, where she spent another four years before taking time off to have her second child. When she returned to work, Toronjo joined the surgery center at Children’s Medical Center, remaining until August 2018, when she took her current teaching assignment at North Central Texas College.
Toronjo describes her time at Children’s Medical Center as “nothing short of amazing.”
“The doctors there are incredible,” she said. “Once I started at Children’s, I became family. It was quite amazing how surgery and surgeons and the team in general could affect people’s lives.”
Teaching is different; here, Toronjo sees her work as “building a new generation of techs.” She tries to instill in them the breadth of her experience in the field, condensed in the brevity of a classroom course. Her students vary in age from teenagers to fifty-year-olds, and they all have different priorities.
“Some of them are so driven,” Toronjo said. “They want trauma, lots of neuro and cardiac. There are basically cases for everybody of all walks of life. It’s amazing to be able to teach them from scratch.”
With each generation that comes through the OR, there’s more emphasis on efficiency, she said. Technicians are expected to be able to adapt to changes in equipment, in instrumentation, in personnel; to integrate new priorities seamlessly and handle constant transition.
“There’s always new people coming through the door,” Toronjo said; “new doctors, new residents, new staff, and you have to adapt in order to be successful.”
The most critical bit of wisdom she seeks to impart to her charges is how to slip into the flow of the surgical team. The effortless synchrony of everyone working together becomes akin to “a hive mentality,” she said, one born of repetition and a willingness to support one another amid that constant transition.
“It just works,” Toronjo said. “Once you’re in it, and you can do it well, you almost can move without having to say anything.”
“Scrub techs, we’re a little bit psychic,” she said. “You just learn how to read people. You live, day in and day out, with all these surgeons. You do the same cases with them over and over again. You learn what their preferences are and how to do it. It just comes naturally after a few cases.”
In addition to her work in the classroom and on her own degree program, Toronjo is a married mother of two children. Her daughter, Alexandria, 8, is a competitive figure skater; her son Max, 5, is “a ball of energy.” When the family isn’t juggling their busy schedules, she and her husband Mark enjoy travel and connecting with nature in West Texas.