Your New Handmade Heart

Rembrant "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp"

Earlier this month, I watched a team of medical professionals crowd around a table and perform a lung biopsy.  When that was finished, the team migrated to the adjacent operating room and completed a coronary bypass procedure on another patient. It was my first time to watch such complex operations, and I was worried that I’d feel lightheaded or get sick at the sight of an open human. But it was awesome.

Everything about the room seemed dated at first, and if it didn’t smell so much like antiseptic, the pastel pink room probably would have smelled like 1993. But it sounded like the future. High on the wall, a single speaker filled the dark operating room with a pulsating satellite radio station. And it started to look like the future, too. In the center of the room, a team of folks crowded around a pool of light. The team’s leader wore a fiber optic headlamp, which had a long, glowing tube that trailed behind him. He’s the surgeon in charge and this is the first surgery procedure I’ll ever watch, a lung biopsy.

The surgery was performed using a thoroscope, a less invasive technique that involves smaller openings in the skin and a tiny illuminated camera. This camera connected to large, flat screen monitors that allowed all of us crowded around the patient to see inside the pleural cavity. The fiber optics leading to the camera also had a long glowing tail, like the surgeon’s headlamp. Where the fiber optic tube had been accidentally bent, several of the fibers inside had broken, making it look like a tube of stars. Combined with the flat screens, the ambient electronic music, and the dark background, I couldn’t believe how this clinically dull room had transformed into something so futuristic.

The second surgery was a coronary bypass. You know how the heart pumps blood to all of the tissues in your body? Well it also pumps blood to the tissue that makes up the heart, and when this circulation is blocked, it’s time for a bypass procedure. I won’t go into too many details, because parts of surgery can easily sound barbaric, but I will say that it was really amazing to watch. And there were surprises. For instance, I knew the surgeon would have to saw through some bone to get to the heart and then delicately attach blood vessels to the heart to complete the operation, but it was still surprising to see it happen. The same hands that really had to put some weight behind it to push the surgical saw through the sternum then took to the task of sewing blood vessels to the heart using suture as thin as hair. A lot happened between the saw and the sewing, but they weren’t too far apart chronologically, and I left thinking “this guy would be great at crafting… or lumberjacking… in rapid succession.”

The patient is still alive today, wandering around with a handmade heart beating inside his chest. Not only have I seen inside that chest, but I’ve also peeked into my own future. The architecture of the operating room was completely static, but what made it appear so compelling and futuristic to me as the procedures advanced was the fact that it’s actually a future I’m ambling toward. It’s the messy future in the center of the room, away from the neatly delineated walls and doors. It’s not for everyone, but I’m happy to have shared their pool of light.