Do something! But don’t smoke…


And the flick of the switch would determine months of hard labor. The first-ever artificial Heart Machine to be completely independent in Costa Rica was to be put through its paces—giving the doctors the chance of working on a completely blood-free heart—and we were nervous because of three things:

–       The patient depends solely on the machine and nothing else. If the machine fails, doctors can pump manually but still need the machine to know whether they are pumping right or wrong.

–       The machine is brand new. Brand new things can either work or not, there’s something called Murphy’s Law.

–       The hefty price tag (three hundred and twenty thousand dollars).

Well, make that four: we were the techs in charge of acting in case anything went wrong.

“Start the pump,” the doctor said with a focused voice and his assistant turned flicked the switch. A comforting beep followed and my partner and I sighed quietly, “start the cardioplegia auxiliary pump,” another comforting beep followed, “start the artificial lung (How does that song go? Too much oxygen will get you high, not enough and you’re going to die? That’s what this does.)”

Silence. My heart stopped.

I looked at the patient and then remembered the file—I took the liberty of reading it even if doctors didn’t let me—specifically the age: fifty-four years old. And there he was with his eyes closed, his mouth ajar and a plastic tube shoved down his throat, his ribs were completely open and his heart was, at that precise moment, still. It was paralyzed.

I also remembered how the doctor had reacted when he opened the patient up. It’s not comforting when you see a doctor go: “wow”, even if it’s mute and unimpressed. He looked up at me, for just a second, and flicked his head, inviting me.

“Check this out,” he passed his blade over the main artery connecting to his heart. The artery did not get cut. He passed it again: nothing. He turned to his assistant and asked for a tougher blade (usually less precise), “this is what happens when you smoke for thirty years. His veins are so calcified the blade won’t go through; we’re going to have to replace them all. This has just become a sextuple by-pass.”

I’m an engineer. I’m not a doctor. And still, the adrenaline rushing through my body at that precise moment sent shivers up and down my body. Or was it the cold air? It didn’t matter. I was in front of scientific greatness.

I remembered when he said: “It’s time to turn on the machine,” and I felt back to reality. How many seconds had I been out of reality? I turned to the doctor and his eyes—the only visible emotion , the rest hidden behind a mask, hair-cap and anti-glare eyeglasses—were honestly scared.

“Do something!” he screamed. We both turned to the machine and I scanned the screen, cursing at myself silently. If it had been more than two minutes, then the patient was as good as dead. Then I saw it, I saw the reason why the artificial lung hadn’t started, but did it matter at the moment? Absolutely not.

I flicked the switch from auto to manual, something the doctor should have done first, before even connecting the patient. The beeps continued, the hoses filled with blood, oxygen was sent where oxygen was needed, temperature was sent where temperature was needed and life was injected where life was needed.

Everything went back to normal. The patient survived and is now recovering from a sextuple by-pass. He is considering quitting smoking. And he doesn’t remember anything, only feeling cold for a moment. And the doctor never saw his mistake. Perhaps he was too scared, or he did noticed and didn’t say a word.

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