Anesthesia can be a glamorous specialty. During my Stanford training in 1984-1986 I flew on Learjets more times than I can count, during missions to harvest donor hearts from throughout the western United States.
Norman Shumway MD PhD, a Stanford surgical professor and legend, invented the heart transplantation procedure and performed the first heart transplant in the USA on January 6, 1968 in operating room 13 of Stanford University Hospital. Survival rates for heart transplantation patients increased markedly in 1983 with the adoption of cyclosporine as an effective anti-rejection drug. During the 1980’s Stanford was the only prominent heart transplantation program in the western United States, and the quantity of brain dead heart donors was modest. In order to expand their volume of transplants, Stanford created a fixed-wing aircraft harvesting and transportation program to bring donor hearts to Palo Alto from distant locations.
One registered nurse had a fulltime job locating appropriate brain dead heart donors within a 60-90 minute Learjet trip from Stanford. A separate team of physicians and nurses was responsible for assembling a waitlist of prospective heart transplant recipients, and for arranging housing for them within the San Francisco Bay Area.
When Stanford learned of a brain dead donor with a normal heart at a distant location, the following choreography occurred: 1) a matching donor was identified and told to come to Stanford Medical Center immediately; 2) a team of surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, and a heart-lung perfusionist was paged to Stanford Medical Center immediately to prepare the recipient patient for his or her transplant surgery; and 3) a transport team of two surgeons (a chief resident in cardiac surgery and a second surgical resident), one anesthesia fellow or resident, one scrub nurse, one circulating nurse, and the nurse in charge of the transport team were all paged to the Stanford Medical Center immediately.
Note that the anesthesia transport team member was only an anesthesia fellow or a resident. The eligible residents were second-year residents (anesthesia residency training was only two years in duration during the 1980’s). As a second-year resident, I was a partially trained anesthesiologist who had done only 800-1000 anesthetics at that time, and was not yet eligible to sit for the American Board of Anesthesia exam.
An ambulance transported our team to the Moffett Field Air Force Base, 10 miles southeast of the Stanford campus, where we boarded a Learjet for the flight to the donor hospital. The donor harvesting catchment area was as far north as Seattle, as far south as Las Vegas, and as far east as Boise. We had no medical tasks to do in flight, and we spent our time looking out the windows and small talking. Upon arrival at the airport in the donor city, an ambulance transported us to the hospital.
At the hospital we proceeded to the intensive care unit where we found the donor’s brain dead body connected to a ventilator and ICU monitors. At this point my work began. Even though the patient was brain dead, it was imperative to maintain his or her vital signs and oxygenation at optimal levels to preserve the cardiac function for the eventual recipient. My first tasks were to insert an arterial line in the radial artery to monitor blood pressure, and to insert a central venous pressure catheter in the internal jugular vein to administer medication infusions as needed to decrease or increase the blood pressure during the upcoming surgery. We would then transport the patient through the hallways of this foreign hospital, accompanied by the surgeons, and directed by staff of that hospital who knew the floor plan. I’d be squeezing an Ambu bag full of oxygen to ventilate the patient, all the while vigilant of the vital signs displayed on a portable monitor during the transport.
We’d arrive in the operating room—a room we’d never seen or worked in before—and prepare the patient for surgery. My job was to connect the patient to the operating room ventilator and the standard cardiac surgery monitors: ECG, oximeter, arterial line, and central venous pressure. The manufacturers of the monitoring equipment varied from hospital to hospital, and it was not unusual for the equipment to be different than machines I’d worked with before. My next task was to prepare vasoactive drips such as nitroprusside and connect them to the central venous pressure IV line. No anesthetic drugs were used, because the donor was brain dead, but surgical stimulus always caused increases in blood pressure and heart rate. It was critical that pumping against a high resistance or pumping at a high rate not tax the donor heart. I also had to fill out a written anesthesia medical record to document what I was doing to the patient.
The scrub tech, nurse, and the two surgeons prepped and draped the patient for surgery, and the initial incision was made over the sternum. A power saw was used to cut the breastbone down the midline to enter the chest. A rib-spreader was used to widen the cavity and improve visualization. The surgeons inspected the heart in terms of its general appearance, size, contractility, and the state of the coronary arteries. Once they’d determined the heart was indeed normal, the transplant nursing coordinator made a phone call to the Stanford operating room in California to inform them it was a green light to anesthetize the heart recipient there.
In our operating room, the two surgeons clamped off the aorta and all other blood vessels leading into and out of the heart, and injected a cardioplegic solution into the coronary arteries via the root of the aorta. This solution preserved the heart function during the upcoming trip when the heart would no longer be beating. The surgeons then cut the heart out of the body, placed it in a sterile bag, and placed the bag into an Igloo chest full of ice. I turned off the ventilator, the surgeons removed their gloves and gowns, and our whole cast scurried out of the operating room with the Igloo and its precious cargo in hand.
It was always a bizarre sight to see that human carcass with an empty thorax lying on an operating room table when we left the operating room. In the later months of my Learjet experiences, a second transplant team was sometimes present to harvest the kidneys or corneas after we departed.
The original ambulance met us at the Emergency Room entrance, and we sped back to the airport Code 3 with alarms blaring. We drove onto the tarmac next to the Learjet and climbed inside. The doors closed, engines flared, and wheels up . . . we were on our way back to Palo Alto.
The flight home was relaxing. We’d spent an intense period of time at the hospital, and we had no work to do except to ride and look out the windows. Beverages and food were always supplied for the trip home. The mood was jubilant—the feeling you get with medical jobs when you realize you’ve accomplished something. We were helping the recipient patient in their journey back to health, and experiencing private jet travel at 35,000 feet at the same time.
On arrival to Moffett Field, an ambulance awaited us on the tarmac. We’d climb in and ride at top speed back to Stanford. We stopped in front of the Emergency Room, and the surgeons and the nurse coordinator ran through the doorway and up the stairs to operating room 13, where the anesthetized recipient patient lay, his or her chest open, ready to receive the new heart at once.
At this point I went home. An anesthesia resident colleague and an anesthesia faculty member were upstairs attending to the recipient. Caring for the recipient patient was their job for today—mine was finished.
How stressful was the entire journey to harvest the new heart? Pretty stressful, to be honest. At that point, I’d done less than two years of anesthesia training, and I was relatively inexperienced. During my training, a faculty member always stood right next to me during every anesthesia induction and a faculty member was immediately available at all times. On the Learjet trips I was without faculty backup for the first time. The setting at the destination hospital was always unfamiliar. The equipment on hand at the destination hospital was often unfamiliar. The cardiac chief resident surgeon was typically an intense 39-year-old who’d been training for decades and who had little interest in waiting any longer than possible while an anesthesia resident-in-training toiled to insert an arterial line and a central venous catheter. Even though the patient was brain dead, there was no tolerance for errors in ventilation or medical management, it was imperative to keep the vital signs stable throughout the donor surgical procedure, and there was time pressure to keep the process moving.
Prior to my anesthesia residency I’d completed three years as an internal medicine resident at Stanford and one year as an attending in the Emergency Room at Stanford. All my experience in internal medicine and emergency medicine was useful on those heart-harvesting trips—but I knew how lucky I was. Internal medicine residents don’t get to ride Learjets, and ER attendings don’t get to ride Learjets either.
An added motivation: We were paid $35/hour for our time, a princely sum in 1986.
Alas, none of this would happen nowadays. Currently there are hundreds of cardiac transplantation programs in the United States, and each program procures their donor hearts from close geographic proximity.
Published in September 2017: The second edition of THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a medical-legal mystery which blends the science and practice of anesthesiology with unforgettable characters, a page-turning plot, and the legacy of Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan.
In this debut thriller, tragedies strike an anesthesiologist as he tries to start a new life with his son.
Dr. Nico Antone, an anesthesiologist at Stanford University, is married to Alexandra, a high-powered real estate agent obsessed with money. Their son, Johnny, an 11th-grader with immense potential, struggles to get the grades he’ll need to attend an Ivy League college. After a screaming match with Alexandra, Nico moves himself and Johnny from Palo Alto, California, to his frozen childhood home of Hibbing, Minnesota. The move should help Johnny improve his grades and thus seem more attractive to universities, but Nico loves the freedom from his wife, too. Hibbing also happens to be the hometown of music icon Bob Dylan. Joining the hospital staff, Nico runs afoul of a grouchy nurse anesthetist calling himself Bobby Dylan, who plays Dylan songs twice a week in a bar called Heaven’s Door. As Nico and Johnny settle in, their lives turn around; they even start dating the gorgeous mother/daughter pair of Lena and Echo Johnson. However, when Johnny accidentally impregnates Echo, the lives of the Hibbing transplants start to implode. In true page-turner fashion, first-time novelist Novak gets started by killing soulless Alexandra, which accelerates the downfall of his underdog protagonist now accused of murder. Dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the insults hurled between Nico and his wife are as hilarious as they are hurtful: “Are you my husband, Nico? Or my dependent?” The author’s medical expertise proves central to the plot, and there are a few grisly moments, as when “dark blood percolated” from a patient’s nostrils “like coffee grounds.” Bob Dylan details add quirkiness to what might otherwise be a chilly revenge tale; we’re told, for instance, that Dylan taught “every singer with a less-than-perfect voice…how to sneer and twist off syllables.” Courtroom scenes toward the end crackle with energy, though one scene involving a snowmobile ties up a certain plot thread too neatly. By the end, Nico has rolled with a great many punches.
Nuanced characterization and crafty details help this debut soar.
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