ASSIGNMENT 13: Inside the operating room with heart surgeons

Jeff Thompson Photography Courtesy: Mayo Clinic Health System
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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) -- For those outside the medical field, an operating room is a foreign world, filled with complex equipment, wiring and implements. Even the surgeons who call it home, learn there.

"It's a humbling profession," Dr. Robert Wiechmann, a veteran cardiac surgeon with Mayo Clinic Health System, explained. "As soon as you think you've got it figured out, something happens where you are humbled and set back."

He wanted to share what cardiac surgeons do and how they do it, so Mayo invited WEAU into the operating room.

Quickly, we discovered it takes a team and technology, to get results.

"I can't do it by myself," heart surgeon Dr. Tom Carmody said. He's been operating on hearts for 11 years with Mayo Clinic Health System, other members of his team have been there even longer.

"You really need everybody on board, a lot of this is timed, patients are on a heart and lung machine," Carmody added. "The quicker we get them on and off that machine, the better they do."

Spend just ten minutes with this group and you will hear the word "team" a lot.

"I can't be fumbling around for an instrument on the back table, it's a ballet, everyone knows their job and we just keep moving," Carmody said.

It's a unique profession and a challenging one, physically and emotionally. The surgeons deal with life and death on a daily basis.

Wiechmann says they are well-versed in working with families, guiding them through complications and challenges. "We have the ability to go to work everyday and impact people's lives in a positive way, to change lives and to save lives and we're very fortunate to be able to do that," he said.

Technology is changing their work for the better. Wiechmann says his OR is state-of-the-art.

"We have monitors around the entire operating room, so the team can watch the operation, most of our operations are done through small incisions, so the only person who can see in that incision, is the actual surgeon," he explained. "No one else can see, but everybody else needs to help you."

They are watching through a camera the surgeons wear. That gear, along with special glasses they call loupes, takes some getting used to.

"I remember my first week, you put your head light on and you go into the operating room and after about two hours you're a little sea sick and you think, how can I do this for the next 20 years?" Wiechmann said. "It's heavy, your nose hurts."

He says it's all about acclimation. He's accustomed to the garb now, and thankful for it.

Together, with advances in surgical instruments, it allows for less invasive operations. Work they used to do through a nine or 10 inch incision, can often be done through a six centimeter cut.

"People describe it as... so doc, you're going to crack open my chest, you're going to rip me open and you're like no, no, no," Wiechmann said. "People have this fear of a sternotomy, and so being able to avoid opening up the sternum and using a little incision, but still doing it safely is fantastic."

The change can reduce a two-month recovery to three or four weeks. It improves results, allows for a fewer post-surgical complications and reduces the mortality rate, Carmody says.

"I still, after 400 of them, I still look at that and say how did we do that," Wiechmann said.

According to Carmody, we are at the cusp of a major explosion in cardiac surgery. He just got back from a conference of cardiac surgeons and engineers, who develop the technology that makes improvements possible.

He believes in 10 years all aortic valve replacements will be done through a poke.

"Doing everything through catheters, tiny little incisions with the heart beating," Carmody said. "We're not just going to sit on our laurels, the industry is involved and that is a big thing."

If you want to learn more about heart health Mayo Clinic Health System is holding a Healthy Heart Fair Saturday, Feb 14 at Oakwood Mall.

From 10 a.m.- 3 p.m. there will be informational booths, kids activities and free screenings. There is also a 10 a.m. surgeon health talk, covering what's new for valve patients.

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