From Student to Surgeon: training to become a cardiothoracic surgeon

While it is extremely important to hear stories of heart valve disease surgery from patients, it is also helpful to understand things from a clinician’s perspective. We talked to Stuart Grant, Specialist Trainee in Cardiac Surgery from Manchester Royal Infirmary and Heart Valve Voice ambassador, about his training to become a cardiothoracic surgeon and how his training has allowed him to provide life-changing treatment to people with heart valve disease.

Training in cardiothoracic surgery is both a very challenging and very rewarding experience. I have found it to be a extremely fascinating and varied field and have had the opportunity to make a huge difference to the quality of many of my patient’s lives. While it is a very specialist training and it was difficult to obtain a post, as there are only between 10 and 20 posts available in this country in a year, it has been well worth it as I have already gained so much out of it.

A typical day varies for me and my training has involved a whole range of jobs including helping with and performing operations, seeing patients on the wards, working in the emergency department and outpatient clinic and monitoring patients on the intensive care unit. I have also had to learn and develop a combination of practical, technical and intellectual skills and have been actively involved in researching, auditing and training junior doctors. Whilst the days can be quite long and can sometimes include operations that can last many hours, I have found that after seeing the difference you make to your patients and their families it is all worth the hard work.

I am fortunate enough to have begun my training during a time when there are significant changes being made to the way that we train, what tools we use and what resources are available to us as cardiothoracic trainee surgeons. There is now more focus being placed on minimally invasive techniques as there are many benefits for the patient with this kind of surgery and it is what more and more patients are asking for.

Another significant advancement to our training is the shift from the traditional medical training methods of “see one, do one, teach one” to having trainees develop their skills and techniques by practicing on simulators – similar to the idea of how they train in aviation. This allows us to hone in on particular areas and master the skills involved before using them in the operating theatre. It isn’t just training that is advancing, the field of cardiothoracic surgery is an incredibly innovative specialty and there is so much progress being made when it comes to the treatments we can now offer patients. Patients that were once thought to be inoperable are now able to receive specialised treatment. For example, we can now replace or repair all of a patient’s heart valves using a minimally invasive procedure and we can also go so far as implanting artificial hearts.

As for heart valve disease and cardiothoracic surgery, we are seeing significant improvements in the way we treat the disease. While heart valve disease can affect anyone at any age, it becomes increasingly common as patients get older and therefore as the whole population ages, it is going to become even more prevalent. Generally, we see that patients requiring heart valve surgery also have more health problems often due to their advanced age. Thanks to techniques like minimally invasive surgery and TAVI these patients, who were once unable to receive surgery are now more likely to get the valve disease treatment they need. We are also seeing that despite their age and co-morbidities, the results of heart valve treatments continue to be successful and more patients are going on to having their health drastically improved.

This is why it is vital that charities, like Heart Valve Voice, are involved in raising awareness of the disease. There are so many treatment options available to a much larger proportion of people, yet the disease does not receive as much attention as other forms of heart disease. This leads to the symptoms going unnoticed or being ignored because patients are unaware of what they are and think that they are just part of the ageing process. I have been involved with Heart Valve Voice over the past few years and have volunteered at a number of events aimed at raising awareness amongst the general public and I feel that it is very important to encourage people to get a checkup with their GP and have their heart listened to.

Heart Valve Voice is also passionate about communicating to patients and their families and providing them with all of the information and resources they need to help them understand their diagnosis and treatment better. This is by far the most important thing I have learned early on in my medical training and have taken with me throughout my career – you need to be open and clear with your patients and treat them as you would yourself or a member of your family. This isn’t always easy, especially during high-pressure situations, but I think it is always important to take the time and make sure that the patient, family and all members of the team are on board and up to date with everything that is happening. I also want to reassure my patients that their concerns or questions are being heard and that we will do our best to keep them informed. As they say at Heart Valve Voice, “the more we listen, the more lives we save” and this is something that I will keep with me as I continue in my career as a cardiothoracic surgeon.

For more information about heart valve disease and treatment options visit the Heart Valve Voice website

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Mother of three grown-up daughters I am the ultimate multi-tasker and am passionate about my role as Silversurfers Website Editor and Social Media Manager. Always on the lookout for all things that will interest and entertain our community. Fueling fun for the young at heart!

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