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During surgery, it is vital that oxygen is fed to the organs of a patient in order to keep them alive. However, during certain heart and lung surgery procedures, the heart and lungs, which pump and circulate blood and oxygen through the body, must be ‘switched off’ temporarily so that surgeons can operate.
Perfusion is the act of pumping liquid through tissue, typically via the blood vessels. Perfusionists, also known as clinical perfusion scientists, are the healthcare professionals who are specially trained in the setting up and operation of heart-lung machines used during heart surgeries. One of their primary responsibilities is to ensure that patients are stable during surgery and that cardiac surgeons are able to operate under the most ideal conditions, i.e. that the heart is not beating or moving at all during surgery.
They will often work in multidisciplinary teams, comprised of surgeons, nurses, anaesthetists, cardiologists and technicians. In these teams, they monitor patients’ vital signs – breathing, blood pressure, pulse and temperature. In some cases they will be required to administer drugs to patients before, during or after surgical procedures.
The role of a perfusionist is highly technical and demands extremely high levels of responsibility and excellent communication.