Greensburg Salem students observe open-heart surgery

| Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2010

A 60-year-old man lay on the operating table, his exposed heart glistening beneath fluorescent lights. Around him, an orderly surgery team worked to hook up his veins to a heart bypass machine.

"That's the heart," Andrea Redinger told her class, pointing to the still-beating organ. "Do you see how it looks like it has a paper bag around it• That's the pericardial sac."

The Greensburg Salem High School teacher and her biotechnology class sat one story above the operating theater at Pittsburgh's Allegheny General Hospital, watching the double heart bypass operation through windows in the operating room's ceiling.

The field trip Monday was the culminating activity of Redinger's semester-long elective for seniors interested in science or medical careers.

"It's the coolest thing I've ever seen, definitely," said Gabrielle Bruzda, 17, who is considering a career in anaesthesiology. "This is the real deal."

"There's so much pressure," remarked Carrie Maier, 18, as the surgery team sewed a section of vein to the patient's heart, using a needle as thin as an eyelash. "I can't picture a doctor doing something normal. They're, like, superhuman."

The observation room above the operating theater hadn't been used for years when Dr. George Magovern Jr., the hospital's chief of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery, got the idea in 2008 to invite high school students to watch surgery.

"It actually goes back to when I was (their) age, coming in and watching my dad do the surgery," said Magovern, whose father, Dr. George Magovern Sr., also was a heart surgeon at Allegheny General. "You're able to bypass a lot of red tape and actually get within feet of the patient."

As in most cases, yesterday's patient did well on the operating table, Magovern said. Magovern, who was still wearing blue scrubs beneath a white coat, with a mask dangling around his neck and sterile booties over his shoes, had come upstairs to answer students' questions after the three-hour surgery.

"How do you do this every day?" asked Ryan Loughran, 17.

"As long as you stay good at it, it doesn't become too stressful," the doctor said. "You still keep the fact that it's a human being in mind, but you try to focus on the technical aspects."

Many of the students said they were considering a medical career, and for some, the surgery strengthened their interest. Emily Craig, 17, thought she might become a doctor.

"I expected to be more grossed out," she said. "I'm actually not at all. I think just because it's so interesting and so real."

Redinger said the class, which also has learned about genomics and stem cells, dissected a beef heart and listened to guest speakers from medical professions, would construct a display about the surgery for their classmates.

This was the first time she brought a class to watch surgery, but Redinger, whose enthusiasm for science was evident in her DNA-shaped earrings, said she hoped to make it an annual field trip.

"For a lot of them, this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing," she said.

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