Heart surgeon Yves d’udekem on job pressure. HOW I MAKE IT WORK...
PAEDIATRIC HEART SURGEON DR D’UDEKEM OPERATES ON BABIES AS YOUNG AS TWO DAYS OLD. HERE, HE OPENS UP ABOUT THE ENORMOUS PRESSURES OF HIS WORK
Igot into cardiac surgery because I wanted to help people at the worst stage of life. When you’re working on the sickest patients, you can make the biggest difference. My main interest is extreme congenital heart disease. Some babies are born with malformed hearts or only one pumping heart chamber. In the past, these patients would die at an early age, but now there is an operation called the Fontan bypass (named after Francois Fontan, the French surgeon who first performed it), which redirects blood to the lungs by bypassing the heart.
Before patients undergo the Fontan procedure between the ages of three and five, they need a number of other operations. The first is usually done soon after birth, sometimes in the first few days of life. Working on babies, there is a high level of precision – half a millimetre will make a difference. The pressure is enormous because no two patients are exactly the same, so you have to be innovative. With the pressure also comes intense emotion.
There are some patients you can’t help but bond with. When you operate on them the first time, they stay for a few months and you see them every day. By the third operation, you know their parents’ first names and you’ve seen the kid grow up. The weight is there – you want to go further for them.
I have five kids of my own. I need to disconnect my children from what I do in theatre. I’m a soft guy, but when I’m operating I’m in the zone. You have to have the right mindset and be very calm and relaxed. Being stressed is not good in the operating theatre.
The hardest part of my job is breaking bad news to families. I try to use those low moments as inspiration. Somehow the suffering is good because it is the drive that makes you improve things. If patients are dying too often, I will try to find a solution for them not to die. That’s why I started my clinical research project, the Fontan Registry, at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute.
The registry collects data from all the patients who have had the Fontan operation in both Australia and New Zealand; it’s the largest database in the world and it lets us define the outcomes of patients in the long run. I want the babies I operate on to live as long as possible and to have a good life.