What is thoracic surgery? In the past few decades thoracic surgery – surgical procedures involving organs within the chest – has made major strides as a life-saving field. With technological advances, complex surgeries such as lung cancer surgery, heart transplants and anti-reflux surgery have become safer and are being offered to more patients.
The life of a thoracic surgeon
The field is demanding but exciting, as technology continues to advance and surgeons hone their skills in complex, life-saving operations.
Peyman Benharash, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon at UCLA, begins his day around 5 am. He arrives at the hospital before 6 am to make the rounds with patients – examining them, talking to the intensive care team and taking notes. On some days, he may have an educational conference at 7 am and is usually in the operating room by 8 am.
As a cardiothoracic surgeon, he performs bypasses, aortic valve repairs and mitral valve repairs, among other procedures. Surgery can last six to eight hours.
After surgery, Dr. Benharash may be in the clinic for post-operative follow-up visits or seeing pre-operative patients. When he's not in surgery, and sometimes on evenings and weekends, Dr. Benharash may be found in the lab working on the latest research to advance cardiothoracic surgery.
"The day is busy but interesting," Dr. Benharash said. "As a cardiothoracic surgeon, you meet with people long before surgery and develop a bond with the patients that is always there, during and after the operation."
Becoming a thoracic surgeon
Cardiothoracic surgeons are trained and board certified in thoracic surgery. Those within the field can focus on cardiac surgery, general thoracic, transplant or a combination.
Dr. Benharash took a traditional path, completing a general surgery residency which usually lasts about five years. That is followed by a thoracic surgery fellowship, lasting two to three years. At first, Dr. Benharash wanted to pursue research, but during residency he felt drawn toward cardiothoracic surgery.
"Being a cardiothoracic surgeon feels like being in a lab every day in a way," he said. "You make new discoveries and have a new challenge every day. It's not the same diagnosis every time."
A newer path involves an integrated residency program that combines general surgery and thoracic surgery. The total training is about six to seven years, slightly shorter than the traditional path. Students may choose to skip the longer path when they understand what thoracic surgery is and have a clear idea of their desired specialty. Those who are still exploring may want to start with general surgery to get a wider exposure.
What is thoracic surgery going to look like in the future? The field is advancing, with more minimally invasive procedures and robot-assisted surgery. Dr. Benharash said thoracic surgery is exciting and rewarding, with the ability not only to save lives but also improve the quality of lives.
"You are able to bring quality of life to people through these procedures that seem crazy and unnatural," he said. "When the patient wakes up afterward and is happy and doing well, it makes it all worthwhile."
By Patricia Chaney