Heart work keeps cardiothoracic surgeon going

Dr Shankar Sriram, a cardiothoracic surgeon, who has practices at Gleneagles and Mount Elizabeth medical centres.

How do you explain what you do to your children? And how are you different from other heart doctors?

My children always understood that I was a surgeon who looked after heart and lung problems. Their only input for me was to be more efficient in getting home on time.

I'm not very different from other heart doctors in what I do, but I seem to be spending most of my time doing cardiothoracic surgery and very little else.

Tell me something fascinating about the chest. Which bits of the chest get you most interested?

The heart is a simple organ that is easy to understand. But isn't it amazing that it can beat 60 to 150 beats a minute, depending on the age of the person? Plus, it can last a lifetime.

So you need to crack open the chest bone to get to the heart and lungs? Do you need brute strength or can you just pry it open?

Sometimes, we need to open the breast bone, called the sternum, to reach the heart. All you need is an oscillating saw.

But there are other situations where we can do operations without cracking the bone, such as closed-heart surgery.

How do you "glue" back the chest after the surgery is completed?

For children under the age of one, we use absorbable sutures. In older patients, we use stainless steel wires to rejoin the bone.If urologists are plumbers and heart surgeons are specialist mechanics, then what are cardiothoracic surgeons?

Highly-skilled mechanics who understand plumbing.

What can cause diseases in the chest?

Some are congenital and some are related to infections. The rest are degenerative.

Your job is gory. True? What is the stuff that movies would be made out of that you can tell us about?

No. It never is comparable to the scene in RoboCop 3 where the policeman double-crosses the bad guy and takes out his heart alive. That is what I call gory.

What is the most amazing moment you remember in your practice?

With over 6,000 operations done to date, I've encountered many amazing moments throughout my practice. These are mainly children.

One underwent surgery and recovered to go to university and lead an active life.

Another was a girl who had complex heart surgery and is now in junior college and aspiring to be a doctor. She also plays tennis for school.

Then there was a third, who has now grown up and is in the physics olympiad.

One kid from Shanghai, who had complex congenital heart disease, is now close to 12 years old and goes skiing and plays football often.

These are all truly life changing stories and these stories keep me going.

Why do you do the job you do?

Possibly because I have no other skills and I have to make a living.

But seriously, my job exercises my heart as much as my brain.

This article was first published on March 13, 2016.
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