Keeping patients safe, sight unseen

For 26 years, patients at North Fulton Hospital in Roswell were aided by the compassion of a health care employee they never saw.

Sequestered in her office adjacent to the operating rooms, Marilyn Freytag was behind the scenes, making sure that surgical, emergency and maternity patients received the highest degree of care.

In a job little-known to most patients -- and a role that surprised her when she first entered the health-care field -- Freytag, a registered certified technician,  oversaw the proper sterilization and working condition of all instruments used in labor and delivery, the operating rooms and the emergency room.

“Nobody ever thinks about where the instruments come from,” said Freytag, who lives in Cumming. “I could give patients the very best care possible by ensuring that all the instruments were in pristine condition, without looking in the sadness of a patient’s eyes. They didn’t know who I was, but I always wanted to do my best to any patient in the OR.”

The idea of working behind-the-scenes first struck Freytag in 1972, when she was living in New York state. She had been accepted to nursing school, but knew her inability to separate herself from the patients was a problem.

“I knew I would just grieve too much over them,” she said. “But my brother was a nurse, and he suggested I consider working in sterile processing. I had never heard about that department. I first got on-the-job training, then later, the state started to certify people so I went to school and took a board examination that I had to maintain.”

Freytag stayed in the sterile processing field until last month, when on her 71st birthday she retired from the job after turning it from a one-woman operation into a department with seven employees.

“I started at North Fulton on the first anniversary of the hospital,” said Freytag. “I worked by myself for two and a half years and was so busy, I sometimes brought my daughter in to help. I was there every weekend, every holiday, until finally I hired two people in 1987. In 1991, the hospital added another floor and I needed more people. There were seven of us when I retired.”

Freytag’s typical day began by running the steam sterilizers, as well as hand-washing and inspecting the instruments from the operating room. The items were then run through a sonic cleaner and a decontaminator, put in a sterilization wrap and set out on trays, ready to use. She also oversaw gas sterilizations for delicate instruments that might break under the steam pressure.

“We also had to reinspect every instrument to make sure the scissors were sharp, the needles weren’t worn down,” she said. “And you had to know microbiology and what type of chemicals to use. No matter what the job, I always did my best because I always thought I could have been one of those patients, and I’d want the best.”

In fact, Freytag underwent four major surgeries as a patient at North Fulton.

“The hospital staff was great,” she said. “They supported me through all my surgeries. It’s the kind of place that’s small enough to be a family but big enough to be effective.”

For the last 11 years, Rhonda Perkey, the director of operative services, was Freytag’s supervisor and part of her hospital family.

“Marilyn loved this hospital, the patients and her coworkers,” said Perkey. “She was extremely dedicated to a very important job that people don’t realize exists. She had very high standards and always showed great diligence, which was extremely important. She never took shortcuts, but always made sure that we could function well in the operating room without any concerns.”

The hospital community also got to know Freytag’s husband, Bob, who frequently volunteered in her office after he retired. “It gave me the chance to be his boss!” said Freytag with a laugh.

A spinal surgery and her husband’s death in 2008 got Freytag thinking about spending more time with her children and seven grandkids. Now that she’s officially retired, she’s working on a list of to-do tasks.

“I want to become more active in my church, and I’m going to join a senior center close to my home and get a better exercise regime going,” she said. “I want to plant a garden this year and spend more time with my five grandsons in Georgia. Retiring was a big decision, but I want to do other things. And at 71, it’s time to start doing it.”

“Milestones” covers significant events and times in the lives of metro Atlantans. Big or small, well-known or not — tell us of a milestone we should write about. Send information to or 404-514-6162; or mail to Milestones, c/o Jamila Robinson, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 223 Perimeter Center Parkway N.E., Atlanta, GA 30346.