Hearts big at open-heart surgery observation program


Beaver County Times

PITTSBURGH — Lindsey Hollabaugh sees people at their most vulnerable several times a week — on the operating table, their hearts exposed.

As an assistant coordinator of surgery observation at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, the Geneva College alumnae has watched and narrated hundreds of open-heart surgeries over the past year. She explains each step of the surgery process to high school students — from the first incision that’s made down the chest to when the patient is closed back up hours later.

It’s something Hollabaugh first experienced as an Ambridge Area High School student in health class years ago. Seeing the procedure is almost normalized for her now.

“Sometimes I have to catch myself because I talk to the kids like it’s so matter-of-fact. Like, ‘Oh, we’re just going to cut into the heart.’ Like a normal day,” she said. “I always have to remember that this is the first time they’re ever seeing this. So it does feel normal to me just because I see it on an almost daily basis, but it is so eye-opening to them.”

About four surgeries a week can be observed by students, who come in early in the morning and stay until lunchtime, the length of the surgery.

On this particular morning, a group of New Brighton High School students came to see a man in his 50s have the procedure done. They sat around an observation window in the darkened room, where a floor below them the surgery was taking place.

The surgeon, Dr. Stephen Bailey, wore a camera on his head in order for students to get a closer look. That video feed was streamed onto a television screen in the observation room. He also does his work through a magnifier to ensure precise work. He came to the observation room afterward to answer students’ questions.

In this particular case, he repaired the patient’s mitral valve, which will hopefully be a lifelong fix, he told students.

While it may have been just another day on the job of Hollabaugh, something else made the visit from New Brighton students special.

Their teacher, Sandy Zern, is Hollabaugh’s mother, who’s taught at the school for 30 years. She brought her advanced biology and anatomy and physiology students to the observation, and has done so for the past several years.

Many of her students aspire to be nurses, physician assistants, doctors and surgeons.

“Coming to observe an open-heart surgery enables them to see what it’s really like firsthand. So it really helps kids,” Zern said. “Some kids that I’ve had in the past, they went back and said, ‘Yes, this is what I want to do.’ And others have said, ‘I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s for me.’ That’s valuable.”

One of her students, Mena Zaki, watched in the surgery room below with excitement. He wasn’t focused on what was going on at the operating table, but off to the side, where a perfusionist used a heart-lung machine to keep the patient’s heart pumping during surgery.

The career is appealing to him since the profession doesn’t require as much school as a doctor and is in high demand.

“It’s just so interesting what happens inside your body that you don’t even know about,” the 17-year-old senior said.

Meanwhile, Mikel McCormick wants to study to become a nurse, but the 16-year-old junior isn’t sure that the operating room is the place for him.

“It also showed me that maybe I’m not cut out for being anything near a surgeon,” he said. “Since there were times when I couldn’t help but cringe and look at them and think, ‘Ow!'”

The visit was also a learning experience for Zern, who saw her daughter in action at work for the first time.

“She has a natural teaching ability,” she said. “You can tell she’s excited about what’s going on with the patient and she conveys that to the kids. I’m just really proud of her.”

Hollabaugh credits her mom with passing along her love of biology.

“It was fun to work with my mom watching, a little added pressure, but really fun to kind of show her what I do,” Hollabaugh said. “I can call her after a day at work and say, ‘Oh, I saw this really cool case.’ But for her to be there alongside me, watching me explain the cases, is something different. So it was fun.”

She told students that the man they saw being operated on would likely be hospitalized for four to five days, because the biggest risk post-surgery is with infection. It will take six to eight weeks for him to completely recover.

Allegheny General Hospital established their open-heart observation program in 2008, and since then, more than 10,000 students from 150 school districts have visited. It’s the only such program in western Pennsylvania.