Forget skydiving, lion-taming or firefighting. Perfusion is the only true heart-stopping career. Perfusionists work alongside heart doctors in the operating suite, running the heart-lung machine that keeps patients alive during open-heart surgery. It's a field loaded with responsibility, and practitioners need the skills and training to do the job right. If you have what it takes, you could enjoy bright job prospects, thanks to a growing demand for perfusionists.
Perfusionists operate heart-lung machines to keep blood flowing when the heart is stopped for open-heart surgery. After a surgeon connects the patient to the equipment, perfusionists add a drug that stills the heart so the doctor can operate. During surgery, perfusionists add oxygen to blood, and monitor blood gases and circulation. With experience and advanced education, perfusionists can go into management; education; or research and development and sales and marketing for product makers. Perfusionists who manage departments oversee budgets, equipment purchases, hiring and staff scheduling.
If you crave routine, perfusion is not the career for you. Perfusionists are always on call, and they typically don’t keep steady work schedules. That makes for unpredictable hours, including weekends, evenings and holidays. On top of handling scheduled surgeries, perfusionists work on emergency cases in a hospital operating room, intensive care unit or ER. But some perfusionists choose careers with medical transport companies where they’re stationed in an ambulance or helicopter. Others help with remote cases from a control room where they use computers to watch circulatory function and troubleshoot if problems crop up during surgery.
They’re not heart doctors, but perfusionists need many of the same skills and traits as surgeons. For starters, they have to know how to focus on one task for hours at a time. The typical heart surgery can take more than three hours, and that’s before you add in prep time and monitoring patient recovery afterward. Plus, perfusionists need manual dexterity to make precise, small movements with their hands. They have to be detail-oriented and able to detect the smallest change in patient condition or circulation. And given the stress levels, an even temper and emotional stability are musts. It also helps to know how to communicate well and work on a team with others.
Perfusionists need at least a bachelor's degree. They can earn either an undergraduate degree in perfusion, or they can get a master's in the field if they already have a bachelor's in a health-related major such as nursing. Students who major in perfusion as undergraduates spend the first two to three years studying biology, chemical principles, calculus, physiology, genetics, computing and English. After wrapping up the basics, students take one to two years to learn about pharmacology, cardiovascular physiology and perfusion technology, and getting supervised clinical experience. If you already have a bachelor’s degree in a health-related field, you can get a two-year master’s that includes classroom studies and hospital observations and rotations. Regardless of degree, the country had just 16 schools accredited through the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Programs as of 2013. Perfusionists typically have to be certified through the American Board of Cardiovascular Perfusion. Getting certified requires passing a two-part, 450-question exam and completing at least 75 clinical perfusions.
The nation had just 4,000 perfusionists as of 2013, and they’re unlikely to be out of work anytime soon. Thanks to an aging population, the number of patients who need surgery for heart disease and other cardiac issues will spur above average job growth. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t track job gains among perfusionists, but the agency forecasts 29 percent job growth through 2020 in all cardiovascular technology jobs. That increase is well above the 14 percent expansion rate for all U.S. occupations.