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Falling in Love With a Heart

By Maria Steelman, '07 (First published in Queens Magazine.)

After graduating from nursing school, my focus in life was straightforward: paying my last month of rent, running Queens Road West with Brittany Clark, babysitting the Marshalls on Friday, passing the state nursing exam to become licensed, and moving back to Minnesota. What I never expected was the opportunity to travel to Rwanda and care for postoperative open-heart patients.

Team Heart, a volunteer organization, performs open-heart surgeries in Kigali, Rwanda. Headed by the Brigham and Woman's Hospital, in collaboration with King Faisal Hospital and the Rwandan Ministry of Health, the team provides life-saving surgery to Rwandans with rheumatic heart disease. In 2010, I went to Kigali with Team Heart to care for patients in recovery.

My nursing career at the University of Minnesota Medical Center had offered me little cardiac experience. Therefore, prior to traveling, I felt obligated to soak up as much about the heart as I could. I reviewed old PowerPoints from school, shadowed a nurse from a cardiac unit, watched YouTube videos on valve replacements and read articles on rheumatic heart disease.   

I arrived at King Faisal Hospital with zest, yet I quickly realized there was no video, shadowing experience, article or PowerPoint slide that could have prepared me for this trip. Our school's motto, "Not to be served, but to serve," had been a constant reminder during my college years to passionately give to others in a selfless manner. Here, I comprehended its significance. 

One day I was offered the opportunity to observe an open-heart surgery. As I stood side by side in the operating room with some of hospital's most prestigious cardiac surgeons, I felt paralyzed as the patient's body was opened-at the smell of cauterization, the sound of the saw and the intensity of the retractor as it held the chest cavity open.

I had never seen a human heart. This vital muscle is often pictured as an old purple rutabaga or a shriveled maroon beet-very unappealing. Although considered one of the most impressive organs, it had never before been visually stimulating to me. 

I take it back, every horrible thought I ever had about this organ. At first sight, I feel in love with the heart. I could not look away or even blink; it was the most exquisite color of coral and canary yellow.  The intricate maze of arteries and veins kept it thumping with no batteries and no power cords. It was one of the most stunning and indescribable things I have ever seen.  

I never imagined my role in the operating room would extend beyond that of a visitor. As the surgery got underway, the lights began to flicker. The hospital generator attempted to kick in as power faltered. I remember there being a chaotic silence, being maneuvered to scrub in and gown up. I was heaved next to the intern, whose hands were already deep within the chest cavity, and my hands where placed under hers. The cardiopulmonary bypass pump was placed to half strength in order to conserve power. Together our hands synchronized the contraction of the heart while the pump circulated the patient's blood. The intern counted out loud to remind me to squeeze. It was as if I was watching someone else's hands hold this magnificent organ. It was the longest six minutes of my life.

The generators finally kicked in and the proper machines resumed responsibility. Surgery proceeded and the patient's tricuspid valve was successfully replaced. From the critical care unit to the step down unit, Sammy, the 23 year-old recipient of a new St. Jude mechanical mitral valve, recovered beautifully. He is an avid lover of futbol, has a huge crush on Beyonce, enjoys farming and thought my iPod was the most amazing machine he had ever held. 

Funny, I felt the same way about his heart.

Maria Steelman graduated from Queens with a bachelor's degree in nursing and Spanish. She works in Washington, DC, in the medical intensive care unit of Georgetown University Hospital. Her plans for the future include further education at Georgetown, returning to Rwanda and "learning to cook like Paula Dean."


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