The heart is one of the most important organs in the entire body. It pumps to circulate your blood throughout your body to keep all of the organs and other systems within your body to be nourished by oxygen, and to remove unwanted waste products like carbon dioxide. The word “heart” is often used in common vernacular to describe the source, the center, and a vital aspect of something. Thus, with how important the heart has been considered even going back to ancient times, it stands to reason that there are surgeons out there who specialize in the surgical procedures concerning the heart. So what exactly are heart surgeons called? Well, the answer may be a little bit more complicated than we think.
First of all, heart surgeons are not cardiologists. Cardiologists are physicians who conduct routine exams on the patient’s rhythmic beating of the heart, and conducts interviews to their patients, asking them how their heart feels. Cardiologists then prescribe them medication meant to either slow down, speed up, relieve pain, or aid in the clearing up of the atrial valves of the heart, depending on the cardiologist’s diagnosis. However, when the cardiologist concludes that surgery is needed, that is when they refer their patients to the “heart surgeon”.
Historically speaking, there were surgeons who did specialize solely on the heart. They were simply known as “cardiac surgeons” and they would often perform open heart surgery to help with blockages, fixed congenital defects and deformities, heart transplants, and even helped in experiments when it came to understanding how the vital organ worked. Heart problems have been the leading cause of natural deaths since recorded history, so it should come as no surprise that cardiac surgery emerged as early as it did (some ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs even depicted cardiac surgery).
However, with the further advancement of modern medicine, so has the structure of specializations advanced. So, by today’s standards, “heart surgery” actually falls under the broader umbrella term of “cardiothoracic surgery” where more specific heart surgery is a further sub-specialization, but practitioners under cardiothoracic surgery in general are more than capable of operating on other organs as well. Namely, the lungs, and esophagus.
Cardiothoracic surgery, as the name suggests, focuses on the surgical treatment of organs in the thoracic cavity, mainly the heart, the lungs, and the esophagus. This can be derived from the two parts of the name; cardio, which means anything related to the heart; and thoracic, which means anything relating to the midsection of the body.
In most countries, cardiothoracic surgery is further subdivided into the more specialized branches such as cardiac surgery, which focuses more on the heart. However, most developed western countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union all consider cardiothoracic surgery its own distinct branch of surgical medicine, with an equal amount of focus and competency on both the cardiac aspect, and the thoracic aspect.
The reason for this is simply a matter of practicality and convenience. The cardiac/circulatory system and the pulmonary system are intrinsically linked, and located in the same general area. Thus, it is a lot more prudent for aspiring surgeons who wish to specialize in this area to know all the aspects of this region. The heart and lungs are connected in that the oxygen that is breathed in by the lungs oxygenate the outgoing blood, and the incoming blood deposits the carbon dioxide and other waste materials back to the lungs to breathe out. As such, it makes sense for a surgeon of this specialty to know the ins and outs of both systems, due to them being linked. Also on a physical standpoint, it’s quite obvious that the lungs and heart are in the same area, so it makes even more sense to know how the other organs work if they’re nearby.
Training for cardiothoracic surgeons comprises of a five to seven year general surgery residency, followed by a two to three year cardiothoracic surgery residency program. This is all on top of the usual four to five years of medical school before this. Additionally, the certification boards for cardiothoracic are highly competitive, with one of the lowest passing rates in the world. This ensures that only the best of the best can have the right to be called a cardiothoracic surgeons.
As surgeons and doctors, cardiothoracic surgeons are among one of the most important kinds of medical professionals around. As mentioned before most natural human deaths and diseases are linked to the heart, which makes cardiothoracic surgeons’ expertise invaluable to human health.
Particular kinds of heart diseases that require the services of a cardiothoracic surgeon include blockages of the arteries in the heart, heart valves, leaking heart valves, heart enlargements, and heart failure, and other congenital heart defects. Open heart surgery is often employed to fix these conditions, and in some cases, transplant unhealthy hearts with new hearts, or even replacing the old heart altogether with an artificial heart.
Despite the several advances in modern medicine, there are still several risks present in the procedures of cardiothoracic surgery. However, it should be duly noted that the statistics for these risks are extremely low, with only a 4-6% mortality rate. In any case, one of the risks during cardiac surgery is neurological damage due to the occurrence of a stroke. This can occur due to an unnatural amount of blood being pumped into the brain during the procedure, however this only occurs in only 5% of cases, and is only known to have been observed in patients who are already at higher risks of strokes to begin with.
Despite all these risks, a cardiothoracic surgeon is duly and diligently trained, and are prepared to counteract any of these risks. Medicine is an incredibly complex and important science, which puts the practitioner in charge of human lives. Thus, it should logically follow that any cardiothoracic surgeon would have passed the strictest of tests in one of the most difficult, long, and competitive medical fields in the world in order to get to where they are now are among the world’s most qualified, and that when you do need to see a cardiothoracic surgeon, you can rest easy knowing you’re in safe hands.
All doctors have a Hippocratic Oath, which bounds them to always do their best to save their patients in the best way possible, cardiothoracic surgeons included. As doctors meant to fix the incredibly important organ of the heart, you can be rest assured that they know what they’re doing, and that they’d do their best to make the surgery a success.