Heart surgeons, also called thoracic surgeons, literally hold their patients' lives in their hands. Becoming a heart surgeon takes years of training, including four years of medical school, four years or more of a surgery residency, and two years or more in a heart-specific specialized residency. Before you embark on the long road to becoming a heart surgeon, you should make sure you have the personal qualifications to succeed in this challenging field.
In the U.S., all heart surgeons are also thoracic surgeons, meaning they can operate on the lungs, esophagus, heart and other chest organs. To become a heart surgeon, you'll also need the skills to operate on these additional organs, too, and you'll have to pass a written exam and an oral exam that test your knowledge and skills in thoracic surgery in order to be board certified. Some thoracic surgeons choose to later focus on the heart and call themselves heart surgeons, cardiac surgeons or cardiovascular surgeons.
There are basic medical and anatomy skills that a heart surgeon needs, which are typically taught in medical school and during residency. For example, you'll need in-depth knowledge of basic human anatomy, especially focusing on the heart, lungs and other chest organs. You'll need a thorough understanding of how medicines and treatments affect the health of your patients' hearts. You'll need the skills to perform basic and advanced surgeries, such as a coronary bypass, aneurysm repair, heart transplants and valve repair. You'll also need the skills to insert catheters into the chest to drain excess fluid and other basic procedures.
The heart surgeon specialty has many pitfalls and stresses, requiring that you have a true passion for the field in order to succeed. The training period is very long; residency hours leave little time for outside interests; jobs can be tough to find in this specialty; and, starting salaries are low and can make it tough to deal with $100,000 or more in student-loan debt in the beginning. As a heart surgeon, you'll also need expensive malpractice insurance. To overcome all these hurdles, you need to truly love your work.
You need strong leadership skills in order to be a heart surgeon. You'll be training residents and directing others on how to properly care for your patients. You'll be in charge of coordinating the pre-operative care of your patient and the care that he needs after surgery. You'll have to work well with nurses, general family practitioners and other members of the hospital staff. You should be confident in your decisions regarding your patients' care and able to lead others into providing them with the best care possible.
You need to be a great surgeon in general, with finely tuned dexterity in order to manipulate sensitive cardiac systems and perform delicate procedures. You should be physically fit, with a strong back and strong hands. You'll have to stand for hours on end, in the same place, performing a surgery. You can't afford to get tired or have pain interfere with your performance.
Heart surgeons work with patients and other hospital staff all day. You need great interpersonal skills and the ability to communicate well. This goes beyond just having a good bedside manner. You need to really listen to your patients because the slightest problem or issue might provide a clue to their treatment. You need compassion and the ability to help educate your patients about their problems. If your patient has issues that need to be addressed, you should be able to communicate this effectively with his nurses.