Shadowing a Cardiothoracic Surgeon

I’ve always really loved surgery. Something about standing in an Operating Room is just so serene. The rest of the world goes away for a little while and you’re focusing on what is in front of you.

It was last January when I first met the Cardiothoracic Surgeon I would eventually observe. However, I was then a concerned family member. I noted his warm bedside manner completely opposite from what I expected as he sat down on my family member’s bed and calmly explained everything and answered everyone’s questions with a smile. Over the course of seeing each other almost every day for a month he became a great mentor. I (nervously) asked if he ever has students observe him. He said he never had before but that he would love to have me.

The night prior to my first Open Heart Surgery I was reading up on everything I possibly could on Coronary Artery Bypass Surgery. I even went as far as to find videos on Youtube to know what to expect. I mean, watching Cristina Yang be her shining star self in an operating room is COMPLETELY different than watching it less than a foot away from you.

That morning we were hit with a record breaking amount of snow; however, nothing was stopping me from getting there early. By the time I got there, the patient was filling out consent forms, I met the patient’s family.

The patient looked at me and said, “You have a job to do.” I laughed was thinking he was joking because honestly my job was to watch and learn, as much as I could. He joked by saying, “You need be my witness and to tell my wife it’s proof that I have a heart.” He made the whole room bust out laughing and definitely broke apart some of the preoperative nerves he and his family were feeling.

Within the hour the surgery started. I stood on a stool next to the Anesthesiologist so I could have a birds-eye view into the patient’s thoracic cavity. The part that definitely got to me was the handsaw that is used to cut through the patient’s sternum. (It’s honestly more the noise of it, like the drill at the dentist that initially freaked me out). However, by the time I heard it next case, it didn’t phase me. The surgeon I observed took such care in identifying the PQRS waves within the thoracic cavity while the heart was beating, he explained on on pump and off pump surgeries differ and how it varies by surgeon “how they operate.” He explained how he used the angiogram to identify his targets for his anastomosis (a connection between adjacent blood vessels.) My favorite part was when he used a Vasodilator to check for blood flow within the artery he was about to attach and to make sure the smooth muscle expanded. It was like seeing everything I’ve observed in textbooks LIVE right in front of me. Somewhere along the line, everything clicked. He even said, “It’s just like in the anatomy books, right Jessica?” I couldn’t have agreed more.

Now, I have to be honest: I was so nervous. It is a little awkward when you first start shadowing because the physician you’re observing isn’t aware of how far you are along in your education, wants to teach you and may even have a little fun putting you on the spot. I rose to the challenge of answering all of his questions while the procedure was happening (four hours worth of questions on my first day was a really great distraction from my ankles killing me: I learned the hard way NOT to wear sneakers and to invest in some Dansko shoes). My first day happened to be on a thursday so you bet I went home and watched Grey’s Anatomy that night. Naturally they were performing a CABG (Coronary Artery Bypass Graft). It felt amazing to be able to follow along and I knew I couldn’t wait to go back.

Since that first day I’ve observed: multiple Coronary Artery Bypass Surgeries, an Aortic valve Replacement, Robotic Lung Lobectomies (this was amazing and with the DaVinci robot it was all performed within an hour with minimal scarring). I also learned how to tie two handed square knots (which oddly enough are making me grateful I made so many friendships bracelets and basically lived in A.C. Moore Craft store in middle school).

My favorite day happened to be when we had an honest conversation about the lack of representation of women within Cardiothoracic Surgery. It is definitely a “Boy’s Club.” There was not one female attending in the Cardiothoracic Surgery department at the hospital I was at. The surgeon I observe always jokes and says, “Be careful what you wish for.” He’s right and I completely understand why. He has four children and has to take call for a full week every month. He misses events, moments of his kids growing up, soccer games. He has an amazing supportive wife that lets his goals happen. All of this comes into a picture when choosing a specialty and setting up the kind of life that we all want to live. I am so grateful for everything he taught me in a medical standpoint and even more grateful that he opened my eyes up to the work/life balance necessary to make it all happily happen.

-Jess


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