New Jersey heart-transplant surgeon is a FilipinaPosted on March 25th, 2011 under We are Pinoys!
Dr. Margarita Camacho
The surgeon’s hands danced carefully, but skillfully, around the patient’s beating heart, cutting and sewing arteries, while music by the Who and Queen blared in the background.
Even after bumping up against some tough scar tissue, the surgeon worked calmly and confidently, while the bright lights of the operating room at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center glinted off the scalpels, tubes, wires and the delicate string of pearls around the neck of the surgeon’s scrubs.
Four hours after Margarita Camacho cracked her patient’s chest open, a new heart pump was finally in place.
Camacho, who wears her signature pearls during every operation, is a rarity in the high-octane world of heart-lung surgery, which has one of the longest and most arduous training programs in the medical profession.
Since 1948, the American Board of Thoracic Surgeons has certified approximately 8,000 surgeons. In 1998, at the age of 43, Camacho became just the 86th woman, according to the board’s records. Today, she is one of only 200 women in the United States to become a board-certified thoracic surgeon.
There are even fewer women who do heart transplants, according to Carolyn Reed, a thoracic surgeon at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.
“Traditionally, it’s been thought of as a man’s world,” Reed said. “It’s just taking a long time — breaking the glass ceiling.”
Being a rarity, however, has never been a problem for Camacho.
“I’m so used to it. I’m very accustomed to being the only woman — or one of the only women — in the room,” she said. “We’re all friends — it’s none of this male-female stuff. They just call me one of the guys.”
She is a first-generation American, the daughter of Filipino parents, and not only grew up in Manhattan but never left the confines of New York City until she attended Vassar College and then Cornell, where she was drawn away from pharmacology by the dramatic immediacy of surgery and its life-saving solutions.
“I like surgery. You’ve got an immediate answer,” Camacho said.
For several years she served as president of the international organization, Women in Thoracic Surgery, and Saturday addressed the Society of Thoracic Surgeons at its annual conference in San Diego.
Her talk was about her specialty: the use of left-ventricular assist devices, or LVADs — battery-operated mechanical pumps that help a diseased or damaged heart beat more efficiently and in the process provide a longer life or buy time for a critically ill patient until a suitable donor heart becomes available for transplant.
Camacho, who is the lead heart transplant surgeon at Newark Beth Israel, says last year she implanted about 50 LVDs and performed more than 50 heart transplants. She has transplanted as many as three hearts in a marathon 28 hours, and the round-the-clock operations make for little free time.
Camacho is married, with a son, has two bearded collies and is an occasional wine enthusiast. But her life is far from ordinary, mainly because she never knows when she’ll be performing surgery. She also never knows when she might be called upon to get on a plane to harvest a donor heart and then return back to Newark to implant it.
Newark Beth Israel has achieved a 91 percent three-year-plus survival rate for transplants, which is better than most of its peers in the region, according to the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients.
“We need to get to those patients as early as possible,” Camacho said. “Many people die waiting for transplants.”
Hundreds of thousands of patients in the United States develop congestive heart failure every year and many need transplants, according to estimates by the American Heart Association. But because of a lack of donor organs, fewer than 2,500 of the procedures are performed each year.
Which is why LVADs are so important, and why Camacho is often the end-of-the-line, the last resort, for patients who come to the medical center’s renowned heart center. For some of the sickest, the mechanical pump is not only a bridge to transplant, but a “destination.” More than once, says Camacho, she’s had to rush back to the hospital in the middle of the night to install a state-of-the-art pump in a patient who has already turned blue.
Alison Gardner, a nurse who assists on many of Camacho’s surgeries, said the 55-year-old is unflappable in the operating room, and inspires confidence and loyalty in those around her.
“She’s always in control,” said Gardner. “And she’s a normal, caring woman.”
After a recent four-hour-long LVAD operation was finished, Camacho left the operating room and, without breaking her stride and still in her scrubs, headed for the waiting room to talk to the patient’s wife, Phyllis Goldblatt.
As she explained the complex operation of the pump in layman’s terms, she sounded like the kindest car mechanic imaginable — getting right to the point, with no “sugarcoating,” but still offering a sober optimism. There will be improvement, she said, comforting the worried wife.
Later, Goldblatt said the surgeon’s personal attention not only to her husband but to her, had made a huge difference.
“She’s amazing,” Goldblatt said about Camacho’s charisma. “Sometimes doctors can be so full of themselves, but not her. I feel I can talk to her on the same level.”
For Camacho, it’s all about the work, and she clearly thrives on it.
“It’s a way of life,” she said.
(Story courtesy of Seth Augenstein of the The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey)