What Is a Clinical Perfusionist?

by Jennifer Alyson

    Perfusion is a little-known but important health field. Clinical cardiac perfusionists keep patients alive during open-heart surgeries, or apply life support to victims of drowning or lung failure. Clinical perfusionists are rare -- fewer than 4,000 practice nationwide. But the field should grow as the population ages, and more patients need open-heart surgery. Perfusion may be a secure career choice if you can handle stressful situations and a fast-paced work environment.

    She may not perform the surgery, but the clinical perfusionist is just as important as any doctor to the success of an open-heart operation. Before the surgeon lifts scalpel to skin, the perfusionist assembles the heart-lung machine that keeps the patient alive during surgery. When it’s time to operate, the perfusionist administers a drug that stops the patient’s heart. She runs the heart-lung machine to circulate and feed oxygen into the blood while the cardiac surgeon works. If there’s internal bleeding, she recovers lost blood and recirculates it. In cases of cardiac shock, respiratory failure or drowning, she operates life-support machines. A clinical perfusionist practices her skill in the operating room. Non-clinical perfusionists work as administrators, teachers, researchers or developers and salespeople for makers of surgical products.

    Outside the operating suite, the clinical perfusionist stays busy. She works with patients who need long-term circulatory support, and keeps failing hearts beating until a patient can make it into surgery. Plus, she uses pacemakers to stabilize heartbeats, or revive a patient’s heart after surgery. And she often has administrative responsibilities, including equipment purchases, technician hiring, department supervision and quality improvement.

    Perfusionists work in a stressful, fast-paced environment. Their usual “office” is in the operating suite during surgery. But some perfusionists work inside ambulances or medical helicopters, where they keep patients alive during transport to a hospital. They may even work remotely, dialing in via Internet connection to heart monitors in distant operating suites, and talking with OR staff by phone to help with troubleshooting. Regardless of where they work, perfusionists can expect to be on call 24-7.

    Perfusionists need some of the same attributes as the heart surgeons with whom they work. They need to know how to quickly solve problems in chaotic, fast-changing cases, and they have to be able to think quickly to save a patient if his condition deteriorates. And because the typical heart surgery takes three hours, perfusionists need physical stamina, as well as the ability to concentrate on one task for long periods. To work with medical equipment, manual dexterity and mechanical abilities are vital. Communications skills are key, too, because perfusionists work on a team with surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses. They have to be able to receive instructions and offer feedback on the patient’s condition.

    Perfusionists need focused training, but before they learn the field, they typically must earn a bachelor’s degree with a concentration in medical technology, respiratory therapy, biology or nursing. After undergraduate school, most perfusion programs take about two years to complete. Coursework includes perfusion technology, anatomy, physiology, ethics, pathology, diagnostics, communications and even theology. To practice in the OR, a perfusionist needs certification through the American Board of Cardiovascular Perfusion. In addition to a degree in the field, the board requires perfusionists to pass a two-part test with 420 multiple-choice questions on topics ranging from pharmacology to catastrophic events.

    About the Author

    Jennifer Alyson started writing professionally in 1995. Her work has appeared in the "Chicago Tribune," the "New York Post" and "Where" magazine. She covers business and real estate, but writes about topics ranging from rock-climbing to jewelry design. She holds a Bachelor of Science in journalism from University of Kansas.

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