Mars Area students observe open-heart surgery
PITTSBURGH — While Allegheny General Hospital staff methodically worked their way through a lifesaving surgery last week, 12 local students pressed their faces to the observation windows up above.
The only hospital in Western Pennsylvania with a functioning observation room, Allegheny General Hospital opened its doors to Mars Area High School on Nov. 20 so students could observe an open-heart surgery.
“I think it’s definitely reinforced my passion about wanting to pursue something in the medical field,” said senior Addi Girdwood. “I definitely don’t think I could be a surgeon, but it was cool to see the anesthesiologist do their job.”
Addi said she was “really big into anesthesiology” and signed up for the trip as part of her gifted classes.
“I’ve been applying for biomedical engineering,” she said of her college plans.
The hospital’s Open-Heart Surgery Observation Program recently celebrated its 15th anniversary as one of the country’s few remaining observation rooms above an operating theater.
Stephen Bailey, chair for Allegheny Health Network’s Cardiovascular Institute, said the program has served more than 20,000 students since its founding in 2008.
“It’s a small group of folks who come in and are able to watch surgery from our observation area,” he said, “and then interact with a variety of health care providers.”
For the program, cardiac surgeons are outfitted with a camera during the procedure, helping students to see what they see as they move through the surgery step by step.
A glass dome then allows students a bird’s-eye view into the operating room, encouraging observation of the many roles necessary to carry out the operation.
Bailey, a cardiac surgeon by training, said while the program has helped educate students on heart health, its aim was to get them “fired up” about the variety of career opportunities in health care.
“We’re trying to get people excited about the different areas of health care, expose them to it and share a little bit about the educational pathway for each” position, Bailey said. “It’s been great; it’s really fun.”
The program has been successful.
Bailey said he regularly runs into professionals who participated in the program and discovers it affected what they’re doing now and “changed their path.”
“There’s a bunch of people on our current team who visited us and participated in the program and have gone on to do almost every job related to what we do in heart surgery,” he said.
One of those professionals is transplant coordinator Gabrielle Inks, a 2010 Seneca Valley graduate who participated in the program.
“When I came, I knew I wanted to go into nursing, but I wasn’t quite sure what type of nursing — so going to see this, it was really interesting to see a different type of nursing no one sees,” she said. “I got to see what an operating room (nurse), or a scrub nurse, actually does.”
She said the experience helped “form” her own path into the field.
As a transplant coordinator, Inks said she works with patients throughout the entire transplant process — from preparation to follow-up appointments.
“I follow patients after their heart transplants; I go to all of their appointments,” she said. “We do education with them and their families; I help set up the transplants.”
Inks said she has worked as a transplant coordinator for five years and worked in the surgical intensive care unit for three years prior to that.
She encourages interested students to participate in the program and “enjoy it.”
“It’s a really cool experience,” she said.
Senior Nick Smith said the observation “helped” to further encourage him to pursue surgery as he looked at biochemistry programs.
“It put everything into perspective,” he said. “We learn so much about this in school, but to actually see it is a lot different.”