Life Lessons in the OR

by Mindy Schiller

Open heart surgery - live!

This week our 7th and 8th graders and a smattering of chaperones, including me, had the opportunity to watch open heart surgery. More important, we were able to ask the surgeon—as well as all of the other medical personnel in the OR—any question on our minds throughout the whole process. The program is called “Live From the Heart” and is orchestrated by the Museum of Science and Industry—less than a ten-minute jaunt from Akiba-Schechter. Science teachers apply to participate in this program years in advance, and yesterday I got to see why.

Our first indication that this might not be the traditional field trip was the pre-packaged breath mints waiting for each of us at our place settings. These, we were instructed by our guide, should be saved for when we became nauseous. (Note: he said “when,” not “if.”) The rustling sound from students gleefully opening breath mint wrappers suddenly grew silent.

Examining the clamping device that holds
open the chest during open heart surgery.

The actual surgery took place at Advocate Christ Medical Center—not at the museum—and we watched via a satellite feed. A rather large group of 9th-12th grade anatomy students were doing the same from the auditorium of their high school in Orland Park, and the surgeon would often toggle back and forth between us and the anatomy students to take questions. How he was able to perform open heart surgery while keeping up a steady stream of conversation is beyond me.

And so we watched—at times tentatively, at times aggressively, leaning forward in our chairs—as bypass surgery was performed on a 67-year-old diabetes patient with coronary heart disease who had just recently suffered a heart attack. We watched as he was covered the patient with iodine wrapping, giving his skin an eerie plastic appearance, watched as his sternum was sawed open and the sides of his chest were clamped apart, watched as the surgeon punctured the patient’s pericardium and yellow fluid gushed out. We saw a saphenous vein harvested from the patient’s leg to be graphed to the heart because the existing artery was 95% blocked. We saw the heart iced and given potassium injections so that it would stop pumping, saw the heart-and-lung machine take over, saw the heart induced to start pumping on its own again, and saw the heart-and-lung-machine grow quiet. And we clapped, finally, when the surgeon sewed up the patient’s sternum with wire, completing his work.

Following along with the surgery and learning
about the parts of the heart

All the while, students asked questions.

"Won’t the pathogens in the air harm the heart?”

“Why doesn’t the heart reject the vein from the leg? Isn’t that sort of like tricking the body?”

“Does every heart have that much fat covering it? Why don’t you cut it away?”

And perhaps the most telling question of all: “What made you decide to become a heart surgeon, and what do you have to do?”

I'm not generally a huge fan of "career days," but this is the kind of career day I like. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if half of our class takes up some form of medicine when they grow up. Not because it’s sexy and not because it makes a lot of money, but because, man, it’s just so damn cool.


Popular Posts