Heart, or cardiac, surgeons operate on the heart, blood vessels and other structures in the chest. The delicate work they perform can be accompanied by stress, long hours and the risk of disease. These highly trained physicians begin their careers in general surgery, then go on for specialty training, a process that can take 17 or more years. Cardiac surgeons earned a median salary of $532,657 in 2011, according to the American Medical Group Association.
The Operating Room
Work in an operating room can be stressful, hectic and physically demanding. A surgeon spends long hours on her feet, as it is not unusual for heart surgery to last four to six hours. Surgery is sometimes an emergency event, performed in a high-pressure, life-or death situation. The OR is full of equipment, including the anesthesia machine and the extra-corporeal equipment used to circulate and oxygenate the patient’s blood while the surgeon operates on the heart. Many of the machines beep or flash when in use. Numerous people, such as the anesthesiologist, surgical nurses, cardiac specialists and other staff, may also be in the operating room.
Outside of the OR, the working pace may be less hectic. Surgeons may visit their patients before and after surgery, in hospital units such as intensive care. Some cardiac surgeons also teach, and may make rounds with a group of medical students or residents, or supervise as the resident performs a procedure. Surgeons spend their time in climate-controlled, relatively quiet, well-lighted hospitals or medical offices.
Risks of the Job
Cardiac surgeons regularly face the possibility of exposure to bloodborne diseases, include hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition to the risk of cuts from scalpels and equipment during surgery, there is also the risk of blood spray. Cardiac surgeons wear protective gear, such as gloves, gowns, caps and face masks, to prevent contact with the patient’s blood. Surgeons also face a slight risk of radiation exposure in this environment, primarily during imaging studies such as X-rays. Anesthetic gases can also pose a risk if the surgeon accidentally inhales them.
Surgeons typically work long hours and may also take emergency calls. They may need to work when they are sleep-deprived and often work under stress. A cardiac surgeon may deal with patients of any age, from a tiny baby with a heart defect to an elderly person who needs a cardiac bypass. The surgeon must be able to build rapport with patients and family, sometimes under emergency conditions. Cardiac surgeons are members of a team of health care professionals, particularly in the OR, and must be able to work collaboratively with other team members.