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Baldwin students observe open heart surgery

| Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Baldwin High School seniors, from left. Justin Jurczyk, Caitlin Brown and Courtney Butler observe an aortic valve replacement and coronary bypass surgery at Allegheny General Hospital on Jan. 16. Baldwin's science department sends two groups of students to observe open heart surgery at the hospital twice per year. Laura Van Wert | South Hills Record
An open heart surgery is performed by Dr. Walter McGregor at Allegheny General Hospital on Jan. 16. The patient, a man in his 80s, received an aortic valve replacement and coronary bypass. The observation room is a skylight about 20 feet above the operating room. There are microphones in both rooms with which people can communicate, which McGregor did during the surgery. Laura Van Wert | South Hills Record
Kari Mangan, Sarah Lyle, anatomy and physiology teacher, Juliana Fortunato and Gianna Caparelli, discuss the open heart surgery by looking at a model of the heart. Laura Van Wert | South Hills Record
Seniors Gianna Caparelli, Tiffany Koch and Abigail Melbin and junior Sejla Jukic, observe an aortic valve replacement and coronary bypass surgery at Allegheny General Hospital on Jan. 16. Baldwin High School's science department sends two groups of students to observe open heart surgery at the hospital twice per year. Laura Van Wert | South Hills Record

A dozen pairs of eyes steadfastly stared 20 feet below the observation glass into the operating room at Allegheny General Hospital on Jan. 16.

For three hours, conversation was at a minimum from the Baldwin High School juniors and seniors. Most discussions were whispered observations.

“Could you imagine doing this for four hours?” said one of the students. “I find the human body fascinating.”

Baldwin High School partners with Allegheny General Hospital's Cardiovascular Institute up to three times a year to let students in the gifted program, or anatomy and physiology and advanced biology classes observe open-heart surgery. The observations are meant to give students a better idea of how the body works and as exposure to medical procedures and professions, said Debbie Reynolds, gifted coordinator at Baldwin High School.

“I just think it's good for them to be exposed,” Reynolds said. “I think it's a fantastic program.”

Reynolds connected Baldwin High School's science department with Pat Wolf, who coordinates the open heart surgery observation program at Allegheny General Hospital in PIttsburgh, five years ago, Reynolds said.

“They had just started letting kids come and watch,” she said.

That first year, more than 100 Baldwin High School students were able to observe open-heart surgeries. The program has since become popular with schools around the region, requiring Baldwin teachers to scale back the number of groups and choose students for the trip by a lottery.

“It's pretty competitive at this point,” said Sarah Lyle, anatomy and physiology teacher at Baldwin High School, who along with Reynolds and Kent Radomsky, biology teacher, supervise the field trips.

“Some of them have been waiting since their freshman year.”

Students agree with the popularity and competition to be selected.

“It just is so interesting. They have his life in their hands right now,” said Tiffany Koch, a senior. “We all try. There are just the lucky few that get picked.”

On Jan. 16, Dr. Walter McGregor, a cardiac surgeon, along with several cardiothoracic residents, anesthesiologists, nurses, physicians assistants and technologists, performed an aortic-valve replacement and coronary bypass on a man in his 80s. Lyle and 13 students observed the surgery while looking through glass windows into the operating room.

They watched as McGregor removed a vein from the patient's left leg for the bypass and the operating team created an alternative circulatory system for blood, stopped the heart, removed valves, worked on the heart, restarted it and closed the chest.

There is more unspoken teamwork in the operating room than the students said they'd imagined.

“It really is a team effort,” Wolf said.

Wolf asked the students questions throughout the observation, such as why is the blood darker at some points. The group also passed around a model of the heart so that Wolf and Lyle could point out different things throughout the procedure.

The observation is a way for the students to see real-life procedures and medical professions and debunk myths that the teens see on television, Lyle said.

Lyle will teach her students a unit on the cardiovascular system later in the year. The students also will dissect deer hearts.

“It's been nice to see the program grow,” Lyle said. “I just love it when students become engaged.”

Likewise, students said, the surgery was not what they expected.

“I expected it to be more blood and less people in the room,” said Nicole Wilkinson, a senior.

Afterward, McGregor spoke to the students for a few minutes about the procedure, the observation program and his career trajectory.

“It truly is a unique opportunity,” McGregor said.

McGregor said he originally didn't think he would be a surgeon but gravitated toward it because that was where he is most talented.

“You end up being attracted to what you're good at,” McGregor said. “You end up doing what feels right.”

Laura Van Wert is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5814 or at

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