A perfusionist sets up and operates a heart-lung machine during operations.
During open-heart surgery, a patient's blood is diverted and circulated outside
the body through a heart-lung machine and returned again to the patient. In
effect, the machine assumes the function of both the heart and lungs.
The perfusionist is responsible for operating the machine during surgery,
monitoring the patient's altered circulation, taking appropriate corrective
action if problems arise and keeping the surgeon and anesthesiologist fully
Perfusionists also have support roles for other medical specialties --
operating mechanical devices to assist in the conservation of blood and blood
products during surgery, and providing long-term support outside of the operating
The profession has been around for only about 30 years, according to the
American Society of Extra-Corporeal Technology (AmSECT). Dr. John Gibbon originally
conceived the idea of a heart-lung machine in 1930, but it was another 21
years before it was developed for extracorporeal circulation.
You must be a quick, calm and clear thinker, says Rick Raley, a perfusionist
in Georgia. "This is very demanding. It has a lot of stress that's uncommon
to other professions. An unfathomable amount of demands are placed upon your
shoulders to bear at a moment's notice. You have to be able to learn how to
think, focus, formulate, apply, control and guide yourself and others if needed.
You have to be a calm voice with respect to the surgeon. Teamwork is paramount
to your success."
Technicians usually work a five-day, 40-hour week, which may include Saturdays
and Sundays. Raley and another perfusionist share a caseload and take turns
being on call every other day and every other weekend. They have about 100
cases apiece each year. Some busy weeks last 90 hours.
"Having a career as a cardiovascular perfusionist is unlike any job someone
could ever imagine," Raley says. "It's actually a lifestyle. You and your
family learn to live by the sound of a pager."