During certain medical procedures, such as open heart surgery, doctors need the patient's heart to be stopped and blood-free to operate. Cardiovascular perfusionists, who work side by side with surgeons and anesthesiologists as critical members of surgical teams, step in for the heart and lungs, running the complex machine that keeps patients alive by circulating and oxygenating their blood while the heart is out of commission.
The perfusionist arrives in the operating room before surgery to set up the heart-lung machine and test equipment, ensuring everything is functioning properly. During the surgery she'll administer drugs to stop a patient's heart and to monitor the heart-lung machine for the duration of the procedure, which can sometimes be hours, making sure blood pressure and blood flow stay at the proper levels while the doctor works. The term "heart bypass surgery" refers to the use of this complex machine: Blood bypasses the heart, instead moving through the heart-lung machine, which also adds oxygen and removes carbon dioxide.
Pre- and Post-Operation
This job does not begin and end in the operating room. Perfusionists also sometimes provide ongoing patient care before and after surgery. They may be responsible for bolstering circulation and using equipment to stabilize a failing heart until it is ready for surgery. After surgery, while the heart is regaining the muscle to work on its own, a perfusionist will sometimes administer medication and blood products to help it function. Like many medical professionals, perfusionists can be called to work at any hour of the day or night.
Outside the operating room, it's a perfusionist's duty to make sure she has the right supplies and support staff to do her job. She does quality checks to ensure that all equipment is clean, running properly and ready to use . This means inventorying and ordering blood products, medications and other supplies. She also hires and supervises support technicians as needed, researches new technology to keep the hospital up to date and collaborates with doctors to decide what new equipment should be ordered.
Education and Skills
You'll need quick wits, an unflappable attention span, rock-solid nerves and excellent people skills to thrive in this high-pressure job. During surgery the perfusionist has the patient's life in her hands. Easy, effective communication with the whole surgical team is a must. You need the eyes to pick up on sometimes subtle changes and the confidence to react quickly. Plan on spending at least a year after undergraduate school to complete a post-baccalaureate certification and pass the national boards. Many perfusionist's earn master's degrees before starting to practice.
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