Local teens are watching open-heart surgery, and some are discovering their future career

High school students from all across our region get to observe a live open heart surgery five days a week at Allegheny General Hospital in a special program that’s been running for 15 years.

From the outside, it’s a lot like the TV medical dramas – glass windows in the ceiling of the operating room where future doctors and nurses watch surgery. On a recent day in November, students from Frazier High School in Perryopolis, Fayette County were the ones watching the surgery.

What’s the experience like for these students?

“People always ask me like, ‘Oh, are you scared of blood and stuff?’, but I’ve always watched the medical TV shows and stuff, but it’s obviously very different,” says Colby Thomas, a freshman at Frazier High School.

Dr. Stephen Bailey, cardiac surgeon at Allegheny General Hospital, talks with the students before performing the open heart surgery. The students quickly learn how many people are critical to the surgery.

“I just think it’s so crazy that all the stuff that goes on down there and all the different people that go into it and just how many different things are happening at once,” says freshman Mya Atkinson. “It’s just so insane to see.”


How does the program impact students?

“The goal is not to make everybody who comes in a heart surgeon or even a physician necessarily, but to share with them that working in a hospital — whether it’s in medicine, nursing, other related fields, whether it’s in dietary or environmental services — you come to work every day and you’re interacting with people who are at a vulnerable, stuck, vulnerable part of their journey in life and it can really impact them by how you treat them,” Dr. Bailey explains.

The students observe about eight people working in the surgical room including the physician assistant, or P.A., who is harvesting the veins and artery from the legs and arm, taking them out to use in the heart. A coronary perfusionist runs the heart pump while the heart is stopped. Anesthesiologists monitor the brain activity. A surgical technologist manages the many tools.

Several employees come to talk with the students, including a nurse who works with biomedical engineers who are improving heart pumps.

Mya says she is learning a lot: “I didn’t know about a biomedical engineer before. I definitely didn’t know that many people were down there in the operating room.”

Even if the students don’t want to go into the medical field as a career, Dr. Bailey hopes by watching an open heart surgery, they’ll learn the importance of keeping their heart healthy.

“While genetics certainly play a role, we’ve learned in the recent past that how we live our life, the diet that that we choose, active or not, really is the more important part of things,” he says.

But the goal of inspiring young people to pursue a career in medicine or a related field is working. Several of the students from Frazier High School plan to follow that path, and many high school students who have observed in the past have returned to work in the very room they watched.

“We’ve got a number of people on our team who came here in high school, and it led them to do one thing or another so we’ve got a P.A. who started her pathway into P.A. school because of the program, a perfusionist who runs the heart lung machine, an anesthesiologist participated,” Dr. Bailey said. “So it’s really impactful.”

Since the program started in 2008, 22,000 students have observed surgeries, and this year alone, 1,500 will. About 80% are high school students, but there are also some middle school and some college students, too. This is only for schools that have signed up for the program.

Learn more about other efforts to help kids in our region become career ready right here.