A heart surgeon performs surgery on the primary blood vessels, such as the aorta, along with the heart. These medical professionals can undergo as much as a decade of training as they learn how to perform surgery and then specialize in heart surgery. The rate of compensation for a skilled surgeon can be very high, especially in a major urban area where his or her skills may be very much needed. While this profession is very male dominated, women can and do become heart surgeons, and female representation in this surgical specialty is on a slow rise.
Like other surgeons, those who operate on the heart are called in when another medical provider recognizes that a patient has a problem that must be corrected with surgery. The surgeon reviews the patient's medical records and meets with him or her to perform an assessment. During the patient meeting, the surgeon can discuss the condition that brought the patient into the office, and discuss possible treatment options, including different approaches to surgery.
Heart surgeons can operate on congenital abnormalities and malformations, correcting these defects so that a patient will enjoy a more normal level of heart function. They can also correct damage to the heart caused by disease, performing procedures such as coronary artery bypass surgery, heart transplant, or pacemaker implantation. The surgeon's goal is to get the patient's condition stabilized so that he or she will be healthier.
Operating on the heart is extremely challenging, and the tools for operating on the heart, such as the bypass machine used during surgery, are relatively recent introductions to the medical procedure. As a result, heart surgery itself is a relatively recent surgical profession. It is also rapidly advancing, as surgeons develop new techniques. Historically, a heart surgeon performed primarily open surgeries, which were highly invasive and came with a high risk of complications and a long healing time. Today, he or she may be able to perform minimally invasive surgery, which is much less traumatic for the patient.
Within the specialty of heart surgery, a surgeon may opt to become a pediatric surgeon, working specifically with children. Pediatric surgeries are typically performed to address congenital heart abnormalities, and they can be quite complex, as there is less room for the surgeon to work, especially in a very young child. These specialists often work in children's hospitals, which provide a range of health care services for children, and they may also be attached to teaching hospitals, where medical residents are provided with opportunities to work with patients and learn from some of the best doctors in the world.