Sue Barrows, a 35-year veteran science teacher, 24 of them at Bothell High School, and Brandi Aubrey, of Bothell, were two of 20 people selected to participate in the Swedish Heart & Vascular Institute’s inaugural “Heart Surgeon for a Day” event held February 26 at the Seattle Science Foundation in Seattle.
As part of February’s American Heart Month, the event was intended to inspire both the participants who attended and the individuals who joined the conversation online on Twitter to learn more about heart disease prevention and treatment.
Over 200 applications to participate were received by Swedish, with the lucky 20 attendees picked randomly. The attendees were a fascinating group: a science teacher with a family history of heart disease, a TV reporter, pre-med college students, three who’d had heart surgery, a young woman whose mother had been a cardiac care nurse at Swedish over 20 years ago, and others.
Dr. Glenn Barnhart, chief and executive director of Swedish’s Cardiac Surgical Services, explained the purpose of the day’s event, “This is an important issue. Heart health today is still very much underappreciated.”
Heart disease affects one in four Americans and is the leading cause of death for both men and women. More than half of all men and women who die from heart disease have no noticeable symptoms, Barnhart shared with the group.
Barrows, Aubrey, and their fellow “surgeons” were treated to a brief lesson on the anatomy of a heart before heading into the BioSkills Lab where four stations were set up to rotate through, along with three of Swedish’s four cardiac surgeons and a couple of cardiologists.
“We have over 150 years of collective experience working on the heart here today,” said Dr. Barnhart, as he introduced the handful of cardiac specialists on hand to share their expertise.
In the BioSkills lab, participants were given the opportunity to dissect pig hearts, try their hand at performing an aortic valve replacement on a pig heart using the surgical tools of the trade, and use the da Vinci robot to perform surgery on a pig heart.
The group also saw a demonstration on some of the special materials produced to repair hearts, demonstrations of electrocardiogram (ECG) procedures, toured an operating room set up for open heart surgery, and toured the Hybrid operating room which is filled with the latest technology to help surgeons at the operating table. The Hybrid OR is considered one of the most advanced operating rooms in the world.
It was a fascinating day for Barrows, who teaches biology, marine biology and zoology.
“I loved all the hands-on activities and being able to do the heart dissections and actually do a heart valve replacement with the real tools and the replacement parts they actually use,” she said, adding, “It was amazing!”
After getting to try her hand at using the da Vinci robotics to perform surgery, she had newfound respect for the skills of the cardiac surgeons. “It was hard! The 3-D spatial was hard to get used to and getting the probe to pick up the needle was difficult to do,” she said.
Dr. Eric Lehr, a master at doing groundbreaking surgeries using the da Vinci robot, was there to guide each participant through their turn at using the robot. Lehr, along with his surgical partner Dr. Johannes Bonatti, were the first in the world to successfully perform a quadruple bypass surgery on a patient a few years ago using the da Vinci robot.
“The use of the da Vinci robot helps cut down recovery time for heart surgery patients from three to four months for open heart surgery to just three to four weeks,” Dr. Lehr said.
Practice using the machine was important for Lehr. “I practiced suturing arteries about 200 times before actually operating on a human heart,” he said.
The da Vinci robot is used for coronary artery bypass, grafting, mitral valve repair and a variety of other surgeries, according to Lehr.
For Aubrey, this event was very personal to her. Dr. Barnhart had been her surgeon when she had an aortic valve replaced five years ago at Swedish.
“I was born with a heart condition we found out about when I was a toddler, so my entire life I was obsessed with anything having to do with the heart,” she said.
“Everybody here at Swedish was so great about preparing me going into the surgery with what to expect with recovery. That was fantastic, but to look at it from the other side of the table was really impressive,” she said, adding that it was mind blowing to look at it from the surgeon’s angle.
The group finished the day having lunch with the cardiac surgeons and cardiologists and a question-and-answer session. The event was considered such a success that Barnhart and event organizers plan to offer the opportunity to the public again sometime later this year. To see more photos from the event, visit the Swedish Facebook page or search for #SwedishDoc4Day on Twitter.