When you perform open-heart surgery, you are literally taking someone's life in your hands. But if you can do the feat with success, you can also give or enhance a person's life.
A baby is born with a faulty valve between the right atrium and the left atrium. Technically speaking, she has an atrial septal defect. This means that when the blood comes back from her lungs to the left atrium, it mixes with the blue blood coming back from the body in the right atrium.
Sound like a major problem? It is. The baby could live with this heart condition, but it will most likely make her weaker and unable to endure much physical activity.
Fortunately, a cardiovascular surgeon can operate and patch up the hole.
Dr. Lawrence Burr is a cardiovascular surgeon. He says that being able to help patients in such profound ways is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the job. "You are definitively helping someone," he says. "It has a high level of job satisfaction and positive patient feedback, almost always."
Dr. Lynda Mickleborough is also a cardiovascular surgeon. She agrees. "It requires a great time commitment, but it is enjoyable to help people," she says.
On the flip side, heart surgery is risky. "Unfortunately, to cut is a chance to cure, and it is also a chance to fail. It can be very sobering for everyone involved," says Dr. Tea Acuff, a cardiovascular surgeon in Texas.
Cardiovascular surgeons perform difficult surgeries such as triple and quadruple bypasses. These can be long and complex surgeries with lengthy healing times. However, surgeons are always working to improve surgical techniques.
"New ideas and techniques are constantly being implemented into one's daily routine, so there is always progress being made," says Burr. "Operations are quicker and safer as compared to 20 years ago."
In addition, less invasive surgeries are becoming more common. "The minimal surgery techniques are being refined," adds Burr.
A small group of surgeons are attempting surgeries using robotics. "They're trying heart surgery, particularly coronary artery bypasses, through small stab wounds or ports using robotic arms and video cameras," explains Acuff.
"It's non-virtual GameBoy heart surgery, if you will."
These methods are currently slow and expensive. But surgeons have hopes for robotic operations in the future.
Burr expects that in 10 to 20 years, surgeons will really begin to see the advancement of robotics in surgery. If that sounds like a long time, remember that someone entering medical school today won't begin practicing as a cardiovascular surgeon for at least 10 years.
"The training is long and difficult," says Burr. He suggests that before plunging into the career, it might be wise to see if it's something that really interests you.
"You should spend time with someone in the profession to learn more about it," agrees Mickleborough.
"Talk to doctors in your area," adds Burr. "Observe in a hospital. Do volunteer work in a hospital to see if medical life is for you."
He also suggests students get a summer job in a hospital and really learn what it's all about. Students might encounter related careers that also appeal to them.
For example, students might find they're more interested in pre- and post-operative care, rather than the actual surgery.
"Cardiac surgeons do surgery on the heart," explains Anne Ferguson. She is the external relations director for a cardiovascular organization. "Their job is at the table. They aren't involved in much patient after-care or pre-care."
A cardiologist is the specialist that spends the most time with the patient, diagnosing and managing a patient's heart condition. If all therapies such as drugs, diet and lifestyle changes don't work, then the patient visits a cardiovascular surgeon.
"When they say they can't do anymore for you, then they send you to talk to the surgeon," says Ferguson.
Acuff enjoys being the person at the end of the help line. "Coming up with solutions and having the technical precision that saves a life is great," he says. "People are usually highly appreciative of what we do."