Witnessing an Open-Heart Surgery

Author: Michelle Russell       

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell

During Convening Leaders last month in Pittsburgh, I — along with about a dozen others, mostly medical meeting planners and a few industry suppliers — witnessed an open-heart surgery. The aneurysm repair was performed at Allegheny General Hospital, a short drive across the river from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

The hospital’s observation room offers a view directly below to the operating table, and a screen on the wall shows a close-up view of the procedure via a camera strapped to the cardiovascular surgeon’s forehead. We peered through the glass right into the patient’s open chest as the surgery team meticulously did their work — holding the young woman’s heart in their hands, inserting a new valve, replacing a coronary artery with the same kind of synthetic tube that we passed around, and stitching up. Lots of incredibly tiny and precise stitches over and over again.

We owed this experience to Chelsea Thomas, director of development at Allegheny — a former colleague of Ben Hainsworth, executive director of associations for K.I.T. Group GmbH, who was part of our group. Thomas oversees the hospital’s Gerald McGinnis Cardiovascular Institute Open Heart Surgery Observation Program for high-school students interested in medical careers. It’s hard to imagine the impact this experience would have on teens, but it gave us adults in the room that morning a renewed respect for such highly skilled physicians, and it reinforced the sanctity of life.

There’s no direct connection between this program and medical meetings. It’s not marketed to cardiovascular associations meeting in Pittsburgh, and it’s not a live-streaming opportunity. But all of us participants formed our own takeaways, some professional and some deeply personal.

Even if they work for medical associations, one planner pointed out, they don’t get to see firsthand the critical work health-care professionals do day in and day out. For Teri Jordan, the experience made her more fully appreciate the time members spend with the Society of Gynecologic Oncology (SGO), where she serves as chief meetings and education officer. Not that she has ever taken SGO’s physicians’ work lightly: Teri makes a point of telling staff members at facilities that host their conferences that their efforts go toward continuing education to help doctors battle cancer. She wants them to know, she said, that they also contribute to the mission.

Heidi Welker, senior vice president of business development and industry partnerships for Freeman Audio Visual Canada, had a different take on watching the live surgery. She thought it would make a unique corporate team-building experience: Every medical professional in that room anticipated each other’s needs, with just the right instrument and technology at the ready. Indeed, at some points during the surgery, it was hard to say whether the two hands working in that little cavity in the patient’s chest belonged to one surgeon or two, they were so closely synchronized.

The shuttle ride back to the center was a bit quiet, as we pondered our experience, and perhaps our mortality. “As soon as I get home,” someone said, “I’m making an appointment for a physical.”

Being There

In my column last month, I teased the five insights of a new Marriott/PCMA Foundation study on trends that will shape the future of events. Deputy Editor Barbara Palmer goes in deep in this month’s cover and CMP Series story. Join her as she explores how one of the study’s insights — the importance of a sense of place — translates to event design and experience and plays out in destinations on both U.S. coasts, and a few cities in between.