Stephen Westaby has operated on over 12,000 hearts and estimates he has saved 97% of his patients.
That, in itself, is impressive.
But the 73-year-old doctor is also an innovation pioneer, internationally recognized for helping to develop and refine the use of heart pumps, artificial hearts and circulatory support technology to get blood circulating through the body.
He has always had a talent for medicine and said he decided to become a heart surgeon at the age of seven after seeing a heart-lung machine in action on a BBC medical series called Your Life in Their Hands.
Despite this, Westaby says his professional career would have been very different if he hadn’t been hit in the head at age 18.
How did it all start?
The illness and terrible death of his beloved grandfather solidified Westaby’s decision to become a heart surgeon.
“One day we were walking the dog and he put his hand on his chest and fell to his knees. After about half an hour he got up and we went home,” he told the BBC Outlook programme.
“We didn’t know he had a heart attack. Then I watched him have another and another, then go into severe heart failure, leading to a miserable existence. Finally, one day, I got home from school and went to the doctor next door. outside my grandfather’s house. I was silent and saw my grandfather turning blue and unable to breathe.”
It was this same grandfather who realized that his grandson had a highly prized skill for a surgeon.
“He realized I was ambidextrous. He taught me to paint and saw that I could draw with both hands.”
Although usually right-handed, Westaby could handle a pen, brush (and possibly surgical instruments) with both hands.
With that dexterity and an extraordinarily precise spatial awareness that allowed him to draw well, he already had two points in his favor for becoming what he wanted.
But there was one relevant factor that weighed against him.
“Surgeons need to have the right temperament,” explained Westaby in an article in the British Daily Mail.
“You have to be able to explain death to grieving family members. You have to have the courage to stand in for your boss when he is tired, the courage to take responsibility for post-operative care of small babies or face disasters in the living room.” “emergency”.
“I was a shy, unassuming boy who was afraid of his own shadow.”
So much so that when he was offered the opportunity to study at Cambridge, one of the best universities in the world, he declined, thinking he would feel out of place.
Instead, he opted for Charing Cross Medical School in London, thinking there could be a more low-key student life. At first, his university life was monotonous.
During this period, however, he decides to learn to play rugby, which will change his life forever.
the blow to the head
In 1968, “we went on tour playing rugby. On a gray winter day, we played a team from Cornish, which had some very tough players. I was hit in the head, fracturing the frontal bone of the skull.”
“I was seeing stars in the dressing room and instead of taking me to the hospital these medical students took me to the pub. After several pints of beer and passing out I woke up the next day very sick.”
Finally, they sent him to the hospital. Not only would Westaby miss the rugby tour, it could have been the end of his medical career. But the incident, oddly enough, had exactly the opposite effect.
“The first night at the hospital, I, this shy, introverted boy, flirted with the nurse who was looking after me.”
When they tried to talk to him, he responded aggressively as he never would have done before.
Something had changed.
X-rays revealed a small crack in the frontal bone of the skull.
“The head trauma affected the part of my brain responsible for critical thinking and risk avoidance. This explains my new lack of inhibition, irritability and occasional aggression.”
“The psychologists’ tests showed that I scored high on what’s called the ‘psychopathic personality inventory,’ and the psychologist said, ‘Don’t worry, most good students are psychopaths. Surgeons in particular.’ It was expected to go back to normal once the swelling subsided, but luckily for me it didn’t.”
The result of the head injury was to lessen Stephen Westaby’s fear and inhibitions.
“Suddenly I became social secretary of the medical school, which organized university nights, and soon after, captain of rugby and cricket.”
“I seemed immune to stress and became a habitual risk taker, an adrenaline junkie who constantly craves excitement. In short, I came out of the head injury experience uninhibited and relentlessly competitive.”
Westaby now possessed “the full combination of skills of a successful surgeon”: coordination, manual dexterity, and daring.
“The last thing you want is a scared surgeon.”
a mechanical heart
Stephen Westaby lived the next four decades in this tense zone between life and death, punctuated by heartbeats.
Among other things, he has specialized in the complicated field of pediatric surgery and baby surgery and develops a method of heart surgery without intensive care.
But one area in particular fascinates him: the potential of artificial hearts.
“You can help people with heart failure, but heart transplants are very rare. You need someone to die to give you that organ.”
“I always thought there must be a better way, a mechanical solution.” But the artificial hearts were too big, bulky and impractical.
“One day in 1993, I met an engineer who worked on artificial hearts named Robert Jarvik.” It was the beginning of a partnership that would revolutionize heart surgery.
Robert Jarvik had invented a pump that helped circulate blood through the body, but he didn’t know how to make it work. It was there that Dr. Westaby entered. AND
Together they created the Jarvik 2000, a miniature battery-powered turbine.
“The first person to own a Jarvik 2000 was a 59-year-old man named Peter Houghton.”
Stephen Westaby was told by the Oxford Research Laboratory that he could only insert the device into a patient whose life expectancy was only a few weeks.
“When he was brought to my office in a wheelchair, his ankles were swollen, his lips were blue, his stomach was swollen. He reminded me of my grandfather just before he died and I was desperate to help him.”
Peter would live another 8 years, much longer than anyone with an artificial heart at the time.
Meanwhile, Westaby was gaining notoriety, and not just in medical circles.
In 2004, he received a phone call that reminded him of echoes of the past.
“There were TV producers who wanted to do a show called ‘Your Life In Their Hands’ with me.
“I immediately said that I would love to talk to them because it was the show I watched when I was 7 years old.”
Decades after seeing the show that would inspire him to become a doctor, Stephen Westaby became the protagonist of one of the show’s episodes.