Matters of the heart

Did you know that your heart is amazing? Every day it beats around 100,000 times, pumping 8,000 litres of blood through your blood vessels: a distance of about 19,000 km. That’s the equivalent of London to New Zealand! It performs this unbelievable job 24/7 in order to provide all your cells with the oxygen they need to survive.

Unfortunately, sometimes things go wrong and people need surgery on their heart. In the past the only method available was for surgeons to cut into the beating heart, but the resulting blood loss was more likely to kill the patient than save them. Stopping the heart solved this problem but only gave surgeons 4 minutes to operate before the person would die from lack of oxygen to the brain.

This all changed in 1953 when an amazing piece of technology called the heart-lung machine was invented. This allowed ‘open-heart surgery’ to be carried out successfully. It takes over the role of the heart and lungs during the operation. Blood from the patient is diverted into the machine before it can enter the heart; oxygen is added and then pumped back into the body. It meant that, for the first time, the heart could be completely stopped and open-heart surgery could last hours, with no lasting damage to the patient.

Further information on the pioneering scientists that helped develop open-heart surgery can be found here.

Fast-forward to 2012 and 17 hour-old Jasmine Carr became the world’s youngest baby to have open-heart surgery. During an ultrasound scan before Jasmine was born, it was discovered that one side of her heart had not developed and she was given just a 15% chance of survival after her birth. However, during an 11 hour operation, surgeons were able to rebuild her heart, which was just the size of a walnut! You can read the whole story (and the very happy ending) here.

You could be part of a team that helps people with heart defects, working as:

  • perfusionist – responsible for the operation of the heart-lung machine
  • cardiac physiologist – monitoring heart function during surgery or carrying out procedures to check the health of the heart
  • cardiographer – operating ECG machines which monitor the functioning of the heart
  • radiographer – producing images of the body to identify and diagnose injury and disease (like ultrasound scanning to see babies before they are born)

This article was written by Gemma from Snapshot Science.