Saturday, January 26, 2008

Becoming a Perfusionist

Getting into perfusion school was no easy task, and staying in was even more difficult. At the time I applied, there were only 14 schools in the entire country, (now there are about 20). The school I applied to, Baylor College of Medicine, accepted several hundred applications the year I applied, of which they considered 176 to be complete. Out of these, sixteen people were invited to the two-day interview process, and of these sixteen, only six were selected to attend the program.

I remember sitting in a classroom with the other interviewees, thinking, "What the hell am I doing here?!" As we went around the room, introducing ourselves, almost everyone else had previous medical experience, while I did not. In addition, everyone else was wearing black or navy, and I had on a very pale pink suit. (I always laugh and say that standing out in the crowd was what got me in, though I was told it was my GPA and personal interviews.)

I was so sure I would not be chosen, I enrolled in a full load of difficult classes at Sam Houston State University, majoring in Biology and minoring in Chemistry. (I had accidentally earned an Associate of General Studies Degree, while getting the prerequisites required to apply at Baylor.) Weeks went by, without any sort of notice. Finally, I couldn't stand it any longer, so I called Baylor to ask when the notices were going to go out. The receptionist put me on hold, then she picked the phone back up and said, "You're in." I started screaming and crying...seriously. I was so very happy.

Baylor took pride in graduating all the students in their program, while the other program in Houston, Texas Heart, probably the largest program in the country at the time, (I think they were taking 15 students twice a year), was said to brag that their attrition rate was 50 percent. Unlike the Texas Heart program that focused solely on perfusion technology, Baylor believed their perfusion students should have a more broad medical background. Our program overlapped with that of the medical students; we shared many of the same classes, and we did rotations in General Medicine, Geriatrics, Pediatrics, Surgery, even Psychiatry. (I'm not sure how spending my weekdays locked in a psych ward at the VA hospital for six weeks helped me as a perfusionist, but it certainly was interesting!)

Classes were extremely difficult, and we were presented with an overwhelming amount of material. In junior college, I had been accustomed to aceing my exams, now I was in a program where the highest grade on some tests was in the 60s! Thankfully, unlike my junior college, there was a curve, and the grading system was "Pass"/"Fail."

In exchange for the torture we had to endure, we were given every benefit Baylor had to offer us. We had complete medical care for ourselves and our families, including social services, at no cost. We had Yvonne who filled out any and all required forms for us, such as financial aid and loan forms, as completely as she could, before she passed them onto us. We were frequently given free theater and concert tickets, we had a budget for social gatherings, and we received endless moral support from the faculty. Still, it was difficult, and one of my five classmates had to attend a semester after graduation to retake one of the classes.

As my program required, I completed 100 cases before my graduation, including one performed by the great Dr. Michael Debakey who had come out of retirement to operate on a friend. This was perhaps the last surgery for which he was the primary surgeon, and it was an honor to be there. Even with 100 supervised cases under my belt, walking into an operating room, alone, was still a little intimidating. I would say it took a few more dozen cases, after my graduation, before I really felt at home behind that pump, alone. There are so many things that can go wrong, and perfusion really is a skill that must be practiced, just as flying an airplane.

A person could read every book ever written about perfusion, and practice in a wet lab for the next few decades, and they would still not be prepared to perform whole body perfusion, independently. This is why I get so upset when I read about a cryonics organization sending fabricators, golfers, or other laymen for a weekend training session to learn an art my peers and I struggled to become proficient at. The thought of these people actually attempting to perfuse a real patient, when they had no experience, whatsoever, as they did for the most recent SA case, makes my blood boil. The fact that these people are being paid as much, or more than some experienced perfusionists makes this situation even more offensive. If a company has the funds to pay for medical professionals, they should hire medical professionals.