The Responsibility and Rewards When Lives are at Stake
Kamal R. Khabbaz, MD, is Chief of
at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
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
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
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?
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
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?
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
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