What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do

John BarstowI was thinking recently about what to do when you don’t know what to do when presented with a new device to work on. I was taken by the irony of the idea of knowing what to do when one doesn’t know what to do, but as I thought about it, I realized that I had some useful information to share, particularly for BMETs new to the job. I hope that experienced BMETs might find the following entertaining.

You could argue that if you know what to do when you don’t know what to do, you actually do know what to do. But there are times when you are expected to resolve a problem with a device that you have never seen before—like the time many years ago I was sent into the operating room to look at a CO2 laser that wasn’t working.

As I entered the OR, the very frustrated surgeon was swearing and throwing instruments. Unfortunately, I had only a vague idea of how a laser worked and no idea at all of how to operate it or fix it. As I hunkered down behind the laser with the circulating nurse, I asked whether the valve on the CO2 tank should be opened. Sure enough, with the valve open, the laser fired up, and I escaped without being impaled by flying instruments.

Since then, I have compiled a list of some other things I have found you can do when you don’t know what to do. Sometimes they even work.

  • Plug it in. Line-powered devices often function poorly when not plugged in.
  • Find the hidden power switch. You know—the one on the back of the machine that turns everything off including the battery charger. Or the one mounted down near the floor where it can be kicked or bumped to “off.”
  • Turn it on. Equipment users sometimes skip this step in the prescribed operational sequence.
  • Turn it off—count to 30—turn it on. This works best on microprocessor-based devices, but give it a try anyway in case the equipment contains a microprocessor. (Remember all those toasters and VCRs that were going to become inoperable on Y2K?)
  • Check the fuses. Good luck finding them. Don’t forget the ones on boards and in modules.
  • Change the batteries. Run-down batteries can lead to all sorts of dysfunctional behavior. (Avoid this by getting plenty of sleep.)
  • Look for disconnected cables. Disconnect and reconnect any cables you find, just on general principle.
  • Clean the relay contacts. This often works on older x-ray machines.
  • Exercise the switches. Everybody likes to flip switches. And any onlookers might be convinced that you actually know how to operate the device.
  • Spin the pots. More idle fun! And if you locate the problem this way, that’s just a bonus.
  • Take it to the shop. The equipment users will assume that you have diagnosed a serious problem. They’ll be impressed by your diligence and decisiveness. Fooled ‘em.
  • Reseat the boards. I’ve seen this work, but I can’t explain how or why it worked. Also, cleaning PC-board edge connectors with a pencil eraser can make you feel that you are doing something constructive.
  • Reseat the chips. Just the ones in sockets.
  • Check the power-supply outputs. Now we are right on the line between not knowing what to do and knowing what to do. It’s probably time to grab the service manual and dig in.

John Barstow, is a BMET at Mad River Community Hospital in Arcata, Calif.