To become a heart surgeon takes decades in medical school, residency and fellowship training that most people would be unwilling to put up with. As doctors are increasingly burdened with more and more paper work, bureaucracy, and live their careers under the constant threat of being sued for anything, many of the best and brightest are choosing other careers. There is also a particular lifelong stress associated with being a heart surgeon that most do not fully appreciate. Knowing that every single decision you make can mean life or death for someone else’s mother, father, sister or brother is an awesome responsibility that can wear on you overtime. Many times in my life, usually when I am driving back to the hospital in the middle of the night, I have caught myself secretly envying the dermatologists, radiologists, and dentists of the world, because while they still perform important roles in society, the stakes are simply not as high. Being a heart surgeon is an awesome responsibility, and a deep honor I take very seriously.
My faith in my career choice was restored today during a visit with one of my patient’s to Edwards Lifesciences in Irvine, California. My patient, Mr. Reginald Scott Nixon underwent a successful aortic valve replacement and aortic aneurysm resection about 6 weeks ago. During his routine follow-up visit, Scott mentioned to me that a neighbor of his had gone on an Edwards Lifesciences heart valve plant tour. (Edwards Lifesciences is the company that makes the tissue heart valve we used to replace Scott’s failing heart valve and is located only 20 minutes from the hospital.) That mention by Scott, led to a call to Beneta Baitoo of Edwards and she arranged the rest. Scott and his wife Mary were scheduled to go on their VIP patient tour of Edwards this morning and my office staff, physician assistant, and I, surprised them by showing up to accompany them on their tour. We all had an incredible experience.
We learned about the rich history of Edwards Lifesciences in researching and making hundreds of thousands of lifesaving heart valves. We touched the actual bovine pericardium used to make the heart valves from scratch and watched legions of hardworking gowned and masked technicians painstakingly hand sewing each individual heart valve together. I was surprised to learn that each heart valve is hand made with almost no automated machines involved. I learned it takes upwards of 40 hours to make a single heart valve from start to finish. It was an impressive facility and medical campus.
What do I mean it takes a village? Well this is an important epiphany I had that will stay with me long after memories of this visit fades. You see, although a patient is operated on by a surgeon, it took literally a village to create that surgeon to what he is today. All the teachers and mentors I have had in my life made me what I am today and I thank them. It then literally takes a village to deliver the best quality healthcare to that patient. Scott only reached me when a loud heart murmur was detected by his internist which was then diagnosed and worked up by his cardiologist, Dr. Ryland Melford. Scott was scheduled and prepared for surgery by Angela and Shannon in my office. Beneta Baitoo of Edwards kept me informed of the latest data on their heart valves which was instrumental in my choosing to use this particular heart valve for Scott. Suzy Wagner, RN, our wonderful dedicated nurse educator and coordinator, made Scott and Mary’s pre and postoperative experience seamless and efficient, and importantly played a key role in keeping Scott’s wife, Mary informed and calm during the long operation. In the operating room, the heart team worked like a finely oiled machine and included my partner, Dr. David Perkowski, Dr. Arthur Levine of cardiac anesthesia, and at least 7 other nurses, surgical technicians, and perfusionists. Scores of skilled and compassionate doctors, nurses, respiratory and physical therapists, social workers, dieticians, and support staff all made the rest of Scott’s hospital stay short, safe, and pleasant. Finally, Mary his newlywed wife took wonderful care of Scott when he was discharged home and gave him the love and support he needed to get through probably the most stressful period of his life.
“It takes a village” took even more meaning when I saw the hundreds of highly skilled technicians at Edwards toiling and painstakingly hand sewing their company’s valves together from scratch. It brought tears to Scott and Mary (and my) eyes, when Scott was presented with a framed photograph of the 5 individuals who put his own particular heart valve together. (Usually on a patient tour, the team of technicians who put together that patient’s particular heart valve comes out from their workstations to personally meet the patient their work benefitted but the team who assembled Scott’s valve was stationed at Edward’s plant in Singapore).
The day reminded me that we in healthcare do incredible lifesaving work that benefit real people every single day. Every patient we touch is someone else’s father, mother, sister and brother. Although being in Medicine is an awesome responsibility, it is also an honor and opportunity to make a real difference in someone else’s life. Although I will probably never lose the stress associated with being a heart surgeon, I also realized today I am not alone. I am part of a wonderful village that saves lives every single day.
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