The observation area at Arizona Heart Hospital was quiet, the two glass domes near the middle of the room draped in such a way that they looked a lot more like hot tubs than windows into an operating room.
Below, two patients lay on sterile tables being prepared for surgery — one for removal of an aneurism, the other for a coronary bypass.
The quiet was broken when a group of about a dozen ninth-graders, clad in turquoise scrubs, filed in and took their places around the viewing domes. The drapes were pulled back and the Mesa Unified School District students spent the next three hours witnessing heart surgeons in action.
Their visit was part of a new program in Mesa, the Health Science High School. It’s focused on teaching students interested in pursuing medical field careers, and is open to any student in Mesa or other school districts.
Health Science High coordinator Valeri Angus said this trip and others throughout the year to places such as the Mayo Clinic and Arizona Heart Institute expose students to the types of careers they might want to pursue.
“They begin to get a feel for what they might be best suited for,” she said. “They all come in thinking they want to be doctors or nurses, but they have no clue as to the range of jobs available to them.”
It also exposes them to professionals like Edward Dietrich, founder and medical director of the Arizona Heart Hospital and a cardiovascular surgeon, who visits with the class and answers its members’ questions.
“They ask about all sorts of things,” he said. “Some have very sophisticated medical questions. But one boy asked, ‘How much money will I make if I become a cardiothoracic surgeon?’”
In the observation room, students are able to communicate via microphones with operating room physicians below. They question what they are seeing and the surgeons respond without missing a beat.
“Dr. Alpern,” one student calls to Jeffrey Alpern, the cardiothoracic and vascular surgeon performing the bypass.
“On the scope, what’s that white stuff we’re seeing?”
“Probably, you’re seeing fat in the subcutaneous layer of the leg.”
This continues throughout the procedure as the students view the surgery both through the dome and on video monitors mounted throughout the room.
Jasmine Johnson, 15, sat with both hands and her chin resting on the rail around the observation dome, watching intently as the physicians worked. She said she’d never seen a person’s heart beating out of a chest before.
“I’m in shock, I guess,” Johnson said. “It’s awesome that they can open up a person’s body like this.”
Johnson has no plans for performing open-heart surgery in her future. She’d like to become a massage therapist once she graduates and then, perhaps, go on to further her education and become a nurse.
Dietrich doesn’t expect that all of the students who visit the hospital as part of the program will want to become surgeons and he says he doesn’t try to influence them to take that path. He wants only to expose them to the various opportunities within the field.
“The more students that can see what real life is about, beyond the textbook, beyond the didactic, is very, very helpful,” he said. “It makes them more enthusiastic about what they are studying and complements their education.”