Watching a Heart Beat: Two Students Spend Time in the Surgery Room, Observing

NJIT Senior David Diaz

Two NJIT students spent seven weeks this summer at St. Barnabas Medical Center, observing surgeons as they operated on patients.  The two also shadowed medical residents as they visited in-hospital patients and talked to doctors about the instruments they use.   

The students, David Diaz and Ketan Gujarathi, were part of a surgical observation program run by NJIT’s Department of Biomedical Engineering.  The program gave the two, both of whom major in biomedical engineering, an inside view of how a high-tech hospital functions. 

For nearly two months, David and Ketan visited St. Barnabas on weekdays from about 6 a.m. to 1 p.m.  They saw the high-tech equipment – the laparoscopic cameras and the surgical robots -- that are now common-place in hospitals.  As part of the program, the two also thought of ideas for new tools and devices that can be used by surgeons.     

Having the chance to stand in an operating room and watch surgeons operate on patients was an experience that David and Ketan won’t soon forget.  They got to sit in on several surgeries, including kidney transplant operations and an open-heart surgery.  Being face to face with an exposed human heart – seeing the heart pump on the operating table -- is not an everyday sight. 

“I’ll never forget seeing that heart beating,” Ketan recalled. “It was like I saw life reduced to its bare essential.  To see something that simple but that amazing – a heart -- took my breath away for awhile.” 

Both were picked to participate in the surgical observation program because of their deep commitment to biomedical engineering and their outstanding academic backgrounds.   

Ketan grew up in Belleville and graduated from Belleville High School.  He was a brilliant student during high school and a gifted athlete – he played tennis, volleyball and track – who graduated second in his senior class.  He was the kind of student who did a bit of everything, and did it all well.  He was an Eagle Scout; he acted in school plays; he sang in the choir and he excelled at playing the harmonium, a keyboard instrument used in Indian music. 

Now a junior at NJIT, Ketan continues to excel.  He attends the Albert Dorman Honors College, where he’s counseled incoming students.  He’s president of Alpha Phi Omega, a service fraternity, and is the Council President for Oak Hall.  After his first year, he was named Outstanding Freshman of the Year.  After he graduates in 2010, he hopes to attend medical school.

Like Ketan, David was also born abroad.  Just before his freshman year in high school, David’s family left their homeland, the Dominican Republic, for America.  So when he entered Perth Amboy High School, David had to master both English and American culture – two major obstacles.  He worked hard to overcome those obstacles and was soon excelling in math and science, his two favorite subjects. 

During his senior year in high school, David got lucky.  During a college career fair at his school, he met Carlomanga Ontanada, the recruiter for NJIT’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP).  Ontanada came to Perth Amboy High to recruit top students.  Ontenada saw the potential in Diaz and recruited him to NJIT. 

EOP helps minority students from humble economic backgrounds attend college.  David’s father works two blue-collar jobs and his mother works as a clerk in a curtain factory.  They came to America so that David and his three siblings could attend American schools, get good jobs and live better lives.  

David has taken full advantage of the opportunities offered to him in America. At NJIT, he’s done so well academically that he transferred into the Honors College.  He’s served as vice-president of Students Affairs for the Student Senate at NJIT, as well as vice-president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.  During his freshman year, he was inducted into the Phi Eta Sigma Honor Society.

Two years ago, he was named Outstanding Sophomore and he has an NJIT Urban Scholarship as well as the Hispanic Heritage Award. 

As a scholar in McNair Research Program, David is doing research that can improve physical therapy treatments for stroke victims.  After he graduates in May, David plans to study biomedical engineering in graduate school.  He’d like to one day work as a research engineer for a major biomedical engineering firm.

In this interview, David and Ketan talk about what it was like to spend seven weeks observing surgeries.  They talk about what they learned and how they benefited from the experience.

What was the best thing you got out of the surgery program?

David: I intend to work one day as a biomedical engineer; I want to be an inventor and an innovator.  The program allowed me to see live surgeries being performed in the operating room.  We rotated through multiple departments within the surgery department and were able to observe a variety of instruments and machinery in a variety of surgeries.  The best thing I learned was that for an engineer, no idea is too small or too insignificant.  As we worked on new designs for surgical devices during the program, we came up with several ideas that we at first thought insignificant or simplistic; in actuality, some of the ideas that we had were so good that they had already been invented. Overall I learned how to be a better critical thinker and a more effective engineer.

Ketan: I intend to go to medical school, so for me the program was a dream come true.  I shadowed medical residents while they did their rotations visiting patients. They mentored me. I had just finished my sophomore year, but I was in the position of a third-year medical student. I got to see things the public never gets to see.  When we were in the operating room, Ronald Chamberlain, the head of surgery at the hospital, would  pause to explain procedures to us. He even drew diagrams for us before the surgeries, which explained what he would do. He made me feel a part of the surgical team. He imparted a lot of knowledge to me. It was a great opportunity for me.

What surgeries left the biggest impression on you?

Ketan: Definitely the cardio surgery – an open heart operation in which the surgeons replaced a patient’s heart valve. I’ll never forget seeing the patient’s heart beating. It was like I saw life -- life reduced to its barest essential.  To see something that simple but amazing took my breath away for awhile. I left the most lasting impression on me. 

David: During our rotations in the Surgery Department, we observed several different surgeries, from laparoscopic surgery (such as a gall bladder removal) to heart valve replacements, and even LAP band insertions, which are used to regulate eating and control obesity.  The surgical procedure, however, that had left biggest impression on me was the Robotic Surgery; Live donor Kidney Transplant (Partially Laparoscopic).  The so-called Da Vinci Surgical Systems robot was used to detach the kidney in the donor. The donor was a 48-year-old woman who was donating her kidney to her brother. The robot has four arms that are controlled by the surgeon using a separate device. The surgeon uses two hand controls and two foot controls. This allows him to control up to three instruments and one camera. Also, the robot and controls can be programmed so that the natural twitch of the surgeon’s hand is removed.  This surgery was impressive and shows just how much biomedical engineering - combined with other fields of study - has advanced the medical industry.

Did the surgeons use high-tech equipment that impressed you?

Ketan: Absolutely, and it was amazing to see.  Most surgeries now are done using laparoscopic cameras that are inserted in the patient.  The surgeons manipulate the camera with one hand (sometimes a nurse helps) and they control the robot with the other hand. And while they do this they watch the surgery on a monitor. The monitor gives them 3-D images that they would not see with the naked eye.  The robots have four hands, which doctors control with two joysticks and a foot pedal.  It’s amazing; it kind of looks like you are at the video arcade.  But the surgeries are much less invasive.

David: Definitely, there were several high-tech devices that greatly impressed me. Aside from the Da Vinci Surgical System (the surgical robot), the doctors used high-quality imaging systems such as ultrasounds and mobile x-ray machines. Such equipment helped the operations run smoothly and quick. 

Was it biomedical engineers who invented the new cameras and robots?

Ketan: Yes, the work that biomedical engineers do has revolutionized the way surgery is performed. And that’s why being a biomedical engineering major is such a great major for me.  I intend to go to med school, but I’m learning biology and engineering, with an emphasis on the engineering. That gives me a great background.  I feel like I’m learning double. You know, the technology is so good that some people are predicting that in a decade surgeons will be obsolete. And that technicians or engineers might one day perform surgeries, using or controlling the robots, and that doctors will take care of patients before and after the surgeries. Whether or not that is true, technology and equipment is such a big part of medicine these days that I know my biomed background will help me understand and use whatever technology is being used after I get out of med school. 

What idea did you come up with a new surgical device?

David: The tool of focus was a rotating clamp for a surgical device.  It’s called the "Maryland".  We proposed a more ergonomic design for the device that would allow surgeons to perform their tasks with a lot more ease and precision.  Sadly, when the idea was presented to the head of surgery, he told us that a similar device had come onto the market just a few months earlier. But we were pleased that we were thinking along the right lines.  And if we had come up with that idea a year ago, we might be rich by now.  And since that idea was already commercialized, we have a few more ideas for new surgical tools that we’ll propose and write papers on.

Do you think that this program will, in the end, help your careers?

David: I’m very grateful to the Biomedical Engineering Department for such a wonderful program.  This experience has not only taught me how to think more critically and offered me real world design experience, but it also has expanded my network and exposed me to some of the brightest minds in the medical field.  It will be a great help to me after I graduate no matter what I do. 

Ketan: I suspect it will help me when it comes time to apply for medical school. But even beyond that, it gave me a chance to jump four years ahead and be in the position of a third-year medical student. The chairman of the surgery department said he might invite us back one day give a talk at St. Barnabus about what we observed and learned about biomedical engineering equipment. That’s incredible.

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)