Upper St. Clair and Obama Academy students peered through the observation deck’s triangular dome, into the Allegheny General Hospital operating room last week, watching and discussing as a team performed open heart surgery below.

“There’s just nothing in the classroom you can do that equates to this,” said Dr. Colin Syme, honors anatomy and physiology teacher at USC. “For some kids, it’s that ‘Aha!’ moment; it’s for them or not for them.”

Syme has accompanied students to the open heart surgery observation since 2009, one year after Allegheny General Hospital launched the program. AGH is one of the few places in the country that offers students the opportunity to watch surgeons and their teams perform the procedure.

“We only started with just a handful of teachers, once or twice a month,” said Pat Wolf, coordinator, open heart surgery observation program, who helped launch the program in 2008. “Teachers talk to each other; the phone started ringing, teachers started calling for spots on the calendar. Now we have, I think it’s 20 counties, maybe, in Western Pennsylvania. Schools come from all the way up in Erie, from Elk County, from Clarion, West Virginia, Ohio. Because there’s nothing like this. We have classes during the school year, September to June, Monday through Friday.”

Dr. George Magovern, whose father, the late Dr. George Magovern Sr., a pioneer in cardiothoracic surgery, and whose brother, Dr. James Magovern, also worked in the field, pushed for the observation program at AGH. Magovern remembered the impact watching his father perform heart surgery had on him and his career, and he wanted to give back to the community.

“I had had such a good experience with it growing up. I learned so much from it that I thought I would do the same thing for the high school students,” Magovern said. “It was really transformative for me. I thought it would probably be transformative for other people as well.

“It’s a very exclusive field, but we’re trying to be very inclusive with the exclusivity. You’re not actually in the room, so there’s no loss of patient confidentiality and there’s no distraction to the surgeon or to the patient. So it’s really an ideal place to learn. This is a real hands-on exposure to complicated surgery.”

While students watched in awe as the open heart surgery was performed, Magovern and Dr. Stephen Bailey, chair of AHN Cardiovascular Institute, shared with them the history of open heart surgery and fielded questions.

“The surgery in the 1960s was very rudimentary, very dangerous,” said Magovern. “You couldn’t keep the patient on a heart lung machine for more than 30, 40 minutes. The rate of change (in surgery) is dramatic from decade to decade. The field changes, and the surgeons have to keep up.”

Bailey said advances in technology are wonderful, but real people will always be necessary in surgery. The observation program aims to inspire young people to pursue a career in medicine, which is a career worth embarking on, Bailey said.

“We’re having a hard time recruiting people into the health-care field because you actually have to come to work,” he said. “It’s generally pretty easy to get out of bed in the morning ... and know you’re going to have an impact. There’s so many jobs in and around medicine. As a team, you come together and figure out the best solution for every individual patient.”

Bailey and Magovern acknowledged that changing technology does impact the general public’s health and the the way surgery is performed, but both believe the need for surgery and for people in the operating room is a constant.

“Almost everybody in the western world who eats a western diet, lives a western lifestyle, has the preliminary pathophysiology for atherosclerosis in their 20s, which is scary. There’s always going to be a need for heart surgery,” Bailey said.

“Heart disease is here to stay,” Magovern added.

Upper St. Clair students soaked it all in, from the surgery to the informal lecture. For some, the experience was the cherry on top of a sweet decision to pursue a career in medicine.

“Seeing it (heart surgery) in class, all the diagrams, then seeing it here, it’s so fascinating and so real. It’s a whole new experience,” said Yoshna Venkataraman, a senior who plans to go into nursing. “The impact you have on someone’s life is far greater than you could ever see.”

Mahleywa Parish, also a USC senior, said the observation, which was followed by a panel discussion led by Magovern, Bailey, Taylor Lambright, MS, CCP, cardiovascular perfusionist, AGH, and Gabrielle Inks, BSN, RN, heart transplant coordinator, AGH, opened her eyes to the breadth and depth of the health-care field.

“Medicine is so interesting and so versatile,” said Parish, who also plans to go into the medical field. “It just fortified the interest and curiosity I have in medicine.”

Career diversity is something Taylor Lambright, a Black Hawks graduate and cardiovascular perfusionist at AGH, learned during her own high school field trip to the observation room.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t go to this field trip you guys are on. I saw the heart lung machine ... I just knew that was what I was going to do,” she told students during the panel discussion, noting she’d never heard of her career title until that field trip.

Inks, too, participated in the observation program when she was in high school at Seneca Valley.

“I run into somebody almost every week ... who was impacted by the program,” said Bailey.

Since the observation program began, more than 22,000 students have witnessed open heart surgery at AGH, and teachers see the value in exposing their students to a surgery so complicated and miraculous.

Syme said though he attends open heart surgery each year, every trip he learns something new alongside his students.

“The surgery today was something I’ve never seen. I get excited about it still,” he said.

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