Vickroy: Students take live surgery experience to heart
Alex Engraffia knows there’s only so much you can do in a classroom. Sometimes, to really learn something, you have to go out into the field.
And sometimes that field is a hospital operating room.
The Evergreen Park High School senior joined more than 100 other local students to watch Christ Medical Center’s “Live from the Heart,” a projected feed of an open-heart operation in real time. The surgeries are conducted weekly for high school students during the school year.
On Wednesday, the mission was to replace an aortic valve on a 37-year-old man with a congenital heart defect. Students from Evergreen Park, St. Laurence, Bogan, Fenger and Bloom high schools watched from the hospital’s auditorium, while students from University of Chicago Lab Schools observed the operation from a theater inside the Museum of Science and Industry.
“It was really cool,” Alex said. “It didn’t bother me at all to watch it. Well, hearing the saw at the beginning, that was maybe a little chilling.”
From the initial incision into the chest, through the slicing of layers of tissue, the replacing of the aortic valve and the repair of an unexpected aneurysm on the aorta, cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Patroklos Pappas and other staffers talked the students through the procedure while also explaining their role in it.
Dr. Antone Tatooles, a cardiovascular surgeon who was not operating this day but has participated in “Live from the Heart” in the past, explained earlier that the open viewing is designed to give students a glimpse of what’s going on in the operating room.
“We are a teaching hospital,” he said. Of course, the surgeries are done with the consent of the patient, he said. And should complications arise, the surgery staff would focus its attention 100 percent on the patient.
But, he added, there is no editing in these sessions.
“This is reality,” he said.
Andy Pollaro, a senior at St. Laurence, wants to become either a nurse or physician’s assistant someday. He said the procedure was captivating from beginning to end.
“I didn’t know you could stop the heart during surgery,” Andy said. He also didn’t expect one of the staffers to be a St. Laurence alum.
Mike Kotwas has been a perfusionist, operating surgical equipment at Christ for more than 20 years.
“It’s good to see some of my homies out there,” Kotwas said as he worked to keep the patient’s blood circulating through a heart-lung machine. The greeting was received with cheers from the audience.
“My job is to keep the body alive while the heart is stopped,” he said.
His advice to the students: “Find something you really want to do. Then it won’t be like working, more like friends getting together to save someone’s life.”
He also encouraged them to go out into the community, to volunteer and help people.
“Look at what your life should be,” he said. “Helping people is a pretty noble cause.”
Pappas also shared details about his early life. He was so fascinated with cutting things open that at age 9, his mother exiled him from the house with his projects, he said.
“I knew when I got home from school and my mom had that look on her face that something good had come in the mail that day,” he said.
Then he asked the audience, “Does anybody dissect anything anymore?”
An Evergreen Park student shouted, “We dissected a sheep heart.”
“Oh, cool,” he said.
Anesthesiologist Patricia Collins explained how the heart is stopped so that the surgeon can work on it. She also talked about the different kinds of anesthesia.
Throughout the procedure, students asked all kinds of questions: about scar tissue, complications, recovery times and how they might pursue a career in medicine.
A student from Fenger asked about the patient’s prognosis.
While he attached the new valve with 24 sets of two stitches, Pappas said the patient’s prognosis was good despite the aortic complication.
“Unfortunately, because of his age, he will probably be on blood thinners the rest of his life and he will probably be back,” Pappas said.
“This is a big deal,” he added. “This guy’s got two little kids. Everything’s got to be done exactly perfect.”
Conor Wedel, a senior at St. Laurence, said he was so impressed by Pappas’s demeanor that, “I’d definitely go to him if I needed heart surgery.”
Conor wants to be a doctor. He said watching heart surgery live was, “by far, one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.”
Several staffers imparted college advice.
“Pick a school where you can get all A’s,” Collins said. “Don’t kid yourself that a C from Harvard is better than an A at a less-competitive school. In the end, getting into med school depends on your GPA, not where you got your undergrad degree.”
She also advised those planning to apply to medical school to have a backup plan because it is difficult to get accepted.
“There are so many things you can do in the medical field,” she said. “You don’t have to be a doctor to help people.”
Melanie Van Sickle wants to pursue veterinary medicine.
“This was a very helpful look into what I might be doing one day,” the Evergreen Park senior said.
She said she was most surprised at how resilient the body can be.
So was Emily Blankenship, also a senior at Evergreen Park.
“They were a lot rougher with the heart than I expected,” she said. “I was also surprised to learn that you can be healthy and still have a defective heart.”
St. Laurence senior Kevin McLaughlin admits he usually has a weak stomach.
“But this was not as bad as I thought it would be,” he said. “It was really interesting. Being able to identify each of the body parts in real life is intriguing. It’s much different than looking at pictures.”
In the end, the consensus seemed to be that the experience was an incredible learning opportunity and that the end of the surgery was the most disturbing. Gasps went out as the patient’s sternum was reattached with metal clamps and the chest cavity closed.
Sue Latocha, coordinator of community health/wellness for the Heart and Vascular Institute, closed the lesson with reminders of how to take good care of the heart. Daily exercise, choosing not to smoke and watching one’s diet, in particular avoiding processed foods and those high in sodium, are essential to good heart health, she said.
“I can guarantee that if you eat processed foods every day, you will end up on that table,” she said.
With that, the students gave a round of applause and headed for lunch, which hopefully did not consist of highly processed fast food.
As he was leaving, Alberto Gama, a senior at Bogan High School, said, “This was the perfect learning opportunity. We’ve gone over a lot of this stuff in class but seeing it live was fascinating.”