According to the Centers for Disease Control, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, accounting for one out of every four deaths. As a heart surgeon, treating heart patients will give you lots of opportunity to save and change lives, but it won't happen easily or quickly. You'll have to be an outstanding student. You will also have to settle in for the long haul and prepare to spend at least 15 years in training.
A four-year bachelor's degree is going to be the first stop on your educational journey. Don't bother looking in college catalogs for a "pre-med" major because you usually won't find it. You can earn a degree in any major as long as it meets the prerequisites for entry into a medical or osteopathic college. Usually that means a few humanities courses, calculus or statistics, basic courses in physics, chemistry and biology, and some advanced work in microbiology or organic chemistry. Each school's requirements are different, so if your heart is set on a specific school it's smart to find out ahead of time what the requirements are.
After earning your bachelor's degree -- preferably with a very high grade point average -- it's time for medical school. This is going to take up another four years of your life. Most schools organize their curriculum with the first two years in classrooms and laboratories and the final two years in clinical rotations. Your classroom time will cover medical law and ethics and some of the practical considerations of running a medical practice. It'll also get into the rest of the scientific knowledge you need to be a doctor, including anatomy and physiology, medical genetics, pharmacology and immunology. During the third and fourth years you'll get hands-on exposure to the major branches of medicine, including surgery, during supervised clinical time.
Once you graduate from medical school, the real work begins. You'll have to earn a place in a surgical residency, which provides you with four to five years of hands-on training in general surgery. You'll start off mostly watching and listening, but by the later years you'll have strong enough skills to work independently and help train newer residents. General surgery residencies give you exposure to a range of traditional and minimally-invasive surgical techniques, mostly in abdominal, breast and vascular surgery. If you're planning a career in heart surgery you should try to wrangle some extra time in the cardiac ward. When your residency is finished, you're eligible to take certification exams through the Board of Surgery.
After your residency you'll be a board-certified general surgeon, but you still have more to learn. The final stage of your training is a specialized fellowship in cardiovascular or cardiothoracic surgery, which will take another two to three years. You'll be part of a cardiac surgical team with experienced surgeons, other fellows, cardiac and perioperative nurses, anesthesiologists and many other professionals. During this time you'll gain a deeper knowledge of heart surgery and its related clinical and diagnostic skills. When you're finished, you'll need to pass one more set of certification exams to become a board-certified heart surgeon. That's a total of 14 to 16 years invested in training.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Heart Disease Facts
- Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis: General Surgery
- American Board of Thoracic Surgery: Definition of Thoracic Surgery
- Saint John's University: Guide for Planning your Pre-Med Curriculum
- UT Southwestern Medical Center: Medical School Curriculum
- American College of Surgeons: General Surgery
- American Board of Surgery: General Surgery Examinations
- American Board of Thoracic Surgery: General Requirements
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.