When Joe Atalla attended the 2015 Kid for a Night fundraiser last June, he won the bid on a unique auction item: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe open-heart surgery.
As a six-year St. Luke’s Children’s Advisory Board member, Atalla figured he would be interested in the procedure.
“The way I saw it, how often do you get the chance to do that? Everybody thought I was crazy,” recalled Atalla.
As the owner and president at Berkeley Building Company Inc. in Boise, Atalla makes critical business decisions every day but this experience gave him the chance to witness something totally new.
The experience itself came highly recommended by fellow board member Mike Simplot, who was awestruck after purchasing the opportunity the previous year.
“I didn’t have too many expectations other than what Mike had said. It was way more educational than I would have expected.”
As the OR tends to be cold and the surgery long, Atalla was advised to dress warmly and wear comfortable shoes. Armed only with this small amount of information, and although no one else dared scrub in with him, he began prepping for his visit to the OR.
This May, the experience came to life.
At 7:30 a.m. sharp, Atalla was greeted in the main lobby of St. Luke’s Boise downtown campus by St. Luke’s cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Scott Huerd.
In a computer lab upstairs, Dr. Huerd explained that Atalla would be scrubbing in on a valve replacement. Atalla was given the opportunity to explore information related to the operation while Dr. Huerd explained the articles and briefed him on the surgery.
“Dr. Huerd was great. He talked about him, I talked about me,” Atalla said. “He answered all of my questions.”
By the time it was all said and done, the procedure lasted a little less than three hours. The OR was like nothing Atalla had expected – and far more complex.
“I was surprised that so many people would come and go. I thought everyone was stuck in the procedure once it started, but others could walk around, go in and out,” he said. “Even though I could have left, I didn’t. It held my attention the whole time.”
What really captivated Atalla was the multitudes of intricate details and the coordination needed for the operation to be a success.
“Everyone knows their part. The surgeon says one word and somebody has already got it taken care of.”
The instrumentation of the heart was equally surprising.
“It was super weird that the heart was in its own cavity, completely separate from the rest of the body.”
Atalla recalls being impressed with the focus on the heart alone. On TV, most of the body is visible during surgery, but not in real life.
“Everything else was covered up,” he recalled. “The sole focus was where the surgeons were operating. It felt completely like a clinical procedure, not like there was a person on the table.”
The surgical team allowed Atalla to stand just inches away from the table. Although the procedure was serious and the surgeons focused, the experience was quite interactive for Atalla.
“I felt like I could ask any question and have it answered.”
Atalla has trouble finding words to describe the last moments of the procedure.
“After it was all done and they began sewing the patient back together, the person’s heart beat was brought back up. Everyone had just worked so hard to fix this heart, lower the patient’s blood pressure, and now, he’s waking up.”
Atalla’s voice is filled with awe as he describes his feelings following the surgery.
“It’s funny, you experience something like that, then just go back to the office for the day. It took time to sink in… it was so amazing.”
The biggest lesson Atalla gained from the experience?“I sure don’t want to be on the other side of the table!”
Sydney Butler is an intern in the Communications and Marketing department at St. Luke’s.