The Secret Life of a Heart Surgeon

The Responsibility and Rewards When Lives are at Stake

Kamal R. Khabbaz, MD, is Chief of Cardiac Surgery in the CardioVascular Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Khabbaz1 Last year, he operated on 350 hearts while maintaining an impressive safety and quality record, running a busy division that includes two other surgeons, teaching and doing research.

Heartmail asked Dr. Khabbaz to reveal what it’s like to literally hold the lives of others in your hands, day after day after day.

How did you decide to become a heart surgeon?

Ever since I was very young I wanted to be a heart surgeon. It was a passion and interest. I grew up around a lot of doctors — not family, but friends — and I was always fascinated by the heart. The first time I saw heart surgery I was in high school, and that was when I started thinking seriously about going to medical school and about heart surgery as a career.

What did it feel like the first time you performed heart surgery?

I was in awe. I was a resident. I felt very privileged, lucky, intimidated, and I was just in awe of the organ. It’s so clean and efficient and powerful.

What is it like to hold someone’s heart in your hands?

It’s extremely humbling, and it’s a huge responsibility.

What is the most important or unique surgery you’ve performed?

Khabbaz2 Every case. Every case is as important as the one before. Every case has the potential to be the most difficult. It’s heart surgery, after all.

What is the lifestyle of a heart surgeon like?

The lifestyle of a heart surgeon is all-consuming. It’s 24/7/365. I’m in the operating room four days a week, sometimes five. I see patients in clinic a half day and I do administration, teach and do research a half day. You’re always working, even when you’re sleeping. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about a case I had that day or a case I’ll have the next day. You need an understanding spouse and family. I’ll be on vacation, on a mountain somewhere, and I’ll get calls. Heart surgery is a great team effort, both in and out of the OR.

How do you cope with the stress? Are you a type A personality?

Type A+. You just accept the stress as part of the fabric of who you are. I work out and exercise in a gym, and I spend quality time with my wife and children.

What don’t people know about heart surgeons?

People might not realize that heart surgeons are emotional about our patients and our cases. We’re mentally consumed with our jobs and need to stay calm while we work, but our jobs cause a lot of emotions as well. We even sometimes cry when our patients and their families suffer.

Have you ever brought anyone back from the brink of death?

Khabbaz3 Many times, because unfortunately that’s the nature of the illnesses we treat. I’ve also operated on patients with gunshots and stabs to the heart who were practically “dead” in the emergency room, and they say “hi” to you the next day. You tell yourself to stay calm, think straight and put your emotions aside.

You have to be a good leader and use every ounce of knowledge and energy you have for your patients. With the help and dedication of everyone I work with, we have saved many lives.

How has heart surgery changed during your career?

It’s a field that is only 50 years old, and I’ve been involved for half of that time. The science and innovation have really pushed forward since I started in the field.

In many ways, heart surgery has become more streamlined. A lot of technical aspects have been figured out, like how to protect the heart during surgery. We have new artificial pumps that are smaller and more efficient (VADs, or ventricular assist devices that pump blood when heart failure has severely weakened the muscle).

As a heart surgeon, you always have to be on the frontier of new surgeries, procedures and technologies. A lot of the things we are doing now, like minimally invasive and transcutaneous (non-surgical) techniques, didn’t exist when I was in school.

What is the worst part of being a heart surgeon?

Watching a patient or family member suffer.

What is the most challenging part?

Probably saying “no” to a patient who needs you--someone with too many risk factors. It’s extremely challenging turning down a patient because he or she is too sick for surgery.

What is the best part of being a heart surgeon?

Getting to see my patients with their families after a successful surgery. It’s very humbling to hear a patient or family member say “thank you for saving my life.”

Above content provided by the CardioVascular Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

April 2016

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