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I Performed Open Heart Surgery... Literally

The word "literally" has been cemented into today's lexicon just as "excellent" and "awesome" was a part of normal conversation when I was young.

Literally has expanded from meaning "exactly" to "similar." I get a kick out of how it's used.

Here's an example.

My daughter's best friend Annie was at our house for dinner. There were large red grapes on the table and Annie held one up and told everyone, "My brother learned how to suture skin at medical school by practicing on grapes. Sewing grape skin together is literally the same thing as surgery."

I pounced. "Really? It's literally the same thing?"

Everyone laughed.

The skill to perform surgery is a gazillion times more complicated than sewing a grape. I know this from personal experience.

Let me explain.

When I was 16 years old, I participated in a summer pre-med program at Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia.

The program should have been called, "A painfully boring summer in the hot, dirty, city for suburban Jewish kids whose Moms want them to be doctors."

The program involved reading unintelligible medical journals, suffering through lectures, following around exhausted and often arrogant residents on rounds, and dissecting a rabbit.

Ugh! What had I signed up for?

But then, I had an audacious thought. What if I spent the summer hanging out in the OR? That would be cool.

I called the office of every surgeon in the hospital. I also called them at home.

Here was my script. "Hello. My name is Richie Hopen and I'm in the hospital's summer program for high school students. I really want to be a surgeon. Can I shadow you for the summer?"

I spoke to a lot of receptionists and they politely took my message. No one returned my call.

However, one of the numbers I called was a wrong number. I accidentally called the home of Dr. Bain's mother. I gave her the pitch and she said, "I'm sure my son would be happy to have you work with him. His office will call you tomorrow. Richie, good luck and have a great summer."

Dr. Bain's assistant called me and set up a time for me to meet the doctor. We met and he agreed to let me follow him.

Pretty soon I became the OR mascot. Everyone knew my name and thought it was hilarious that a high school kid had free rein of the OR. The nurses taught me the essentials like hand washing and how to put on a gown. They also flirted with me and laughed when I blushed.

The surgeons got to know me and often allowed me to observe them while operating. I saw general surgery, brain surgery, and orthopedic surgery. I often held retractors and did anything else they asked.

One day, open heart surgery was scheduled and the room was overflowing with medical students and residents. I scrubbed in and walked into the crowded room. I stood on a small stool at the back so I could see over the heads of others.

One of the surgeons saw me and shouted, "Hey Richie, the high school student, want to assist?"

The med students turned and glared at me as I approached the table. The doctor instructed me to touch the aorta. He then asked me to release the clamps that were occluding dozens of veins and arteries.

I didn't know how to release a clamp so he stopped the procedure and gave me a quick tutorial. I then released the clamps one at a time as directed.

So, when I was sixteen I performed heart surgery.



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