Open Heart Surgery

This past summer I had the opportunity to intern in the Main Operating room of a major hospital. It was a dream come true–I’ve always been fascinated with surgery and what went on behind those exclusive, heavy metal doors. In many ways, the things that I was able to experience far exceeded my hopes for the job. Robotic hysterectomies, reconstructive plastics,  emergency trauma cases, delicate brain surgery, laproscopic gastric bypass and life-saving cancer treatments are just a few of the operations I was lucky enough to witness. 

With all that aside, one case in particular stands out in my mind. It was only my 3rd day there when I got the opportunity to stand in on a STAT CABG [emergency open heart surgery to bypass a blockage]. Words can not describe my emotions during the procedure–it was almost surreal. I watched as the seemingly healthy and vibrant man hopped onto the narrow operating table before pausing and looking up at the staff to say, “well, take good care of me!”. And with that, his life was in their hands.

Soon the anesthesia put him out and a machine began breathing for him. Sterile blue paper covered him completely, with only his chest exposed. It was almost like there wasn’t even a person on the table anymore. I kept bending down to see see the back of his head underneath the set-up– just to remind myself that he was really there. 

I’ll spare the more specific details, but as I stood there on that stool next to the anesthesiologist looking down at everything, I literally witnessed life stop and start again. Blankly I starred as his chest was cranked apart–tissue separating to reveal a red, beating heart–right in front of me. It was the very organ that had been working since the 3rd week of conception to keep him alive–never had it failed him, never had it stopped. 

In order for the surgeon to operate on the heart–it needs to be still and life needs to be maintained via machine during surgery. The man was connected to the bypass machine to oxygenate his blood while his heart was out of commission. His chest cavity was filled with ice. The room was silent as his heart turned from red to pink to white–the beats from strong to quivers to nothing. The heart monitors let out a beep that was quickly silenced as the surgical team began to work without hesitation. Each staff member remained focused on their specified task–each move so involved and delicate.

What happened during the 7 hour repair is not so important but rather the moment the man came back to life after the completion of the bypass. The ice was removed from his chest and replaced with warming fluid while the machine was turned off. The dead heart began to quiver again and with a jolt of electricity-the rhythm returned. It changed from white to pink to red–back to life. The staff applauded as a sense of accomplishment and relief filled the room. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen or felt. ever. 

I decided to share this story not only to revisit such an extraordinary event, but to also share the two realizations to which this experience led me. The first is simply how lucky we are to be alive–what a miracle it is–what a fragile gift! The intricate and specialized processes carried out by our bodies must align perfectly–from the signals in our brain to the spontaneous impulses that drive the heart. Without a piece of this involute puzzle–all is lost. Because we have this life, we are able to experience, to feel, to move and to love. We are able to live, and for that we will always be fortunate. 

Moreover, I truly embraced the idea that everyone on this planet is exactly the same. The struggling adolescent, the janitor,the grieving mother, the lawyer, the starving child, Miss America–they all have the same beating heart beneath their chest. No one is better or worse, more special or less worthy–just equal. We all deserve love and respect and we all desire purpose and and significance. And we are are here–sharing this life together–and for that we should all support each other. 


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