Seeing for the First Time

An ICHF pediatric heart surgeon in-training receives a gift to help her save lives
Written by guest blogger, Babyheart Team Member, Randa Blenden
Benghazi, Libya

When I think back to my childhood when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I remember my answers changing with the seasons.  In the second grade, the popular answer was a rock star.  In the fourth grade, I wasn’t quite sure what I would be, but definitely, a teacher, a rodeo queen, and a dolphin trainer at Sea World were front-runners.  It wasn’t until I was in high school that I knew I wanted to be a nurse.  Some people, like Libyan Pediatric Cardiac Surgeon, Dr. Wegdan Abou Amer, have always known what they would be when they grew up. When she was 5 years old, Wegdan recalls a day her mother asked each of her 7 siblings and herself what he or she were going to be when they were older, and her mother said her response, without hesitation, was cardiac surgeon. Even when she was very young, she remembers being mesmerized and completely absorbed by anything to do with the heart.  If there was a show on TV about the heart, she would stop and watch and listen to everything they were saying.  By the age of 9, she could draw the heart anatomy and explain it’s circulation.  She remembers her teachers asking her to come to the front of the class to draw it for them.

Dania follow up Nov 6 - 2
Ping Pong Nov 29 - 08

Wegdan comes from a hard-working, intelligent family of engineers, teachers, pharmacists, doctors and a veterinarian.  So I guess you could say determination to succeed in life and in her career is simply in her genes.  During her 3rd year of medical school, at the age of 21, she found her way into the operating room assisting Dr. Hassan, a cardiac surgeon in her hometown of Tripoli, who would later become a great mentor to her.  She continued her work with Dr. Hassan throughout medical school and after graduation accepted a full-time position at Tripoli Medical Center.  There she would continue to assist Dr. Hassan in his adult and pediatric cardiac cases, as well as provide post-op care to the patients in the ICU.   Along with Dr. Hassan, Wegdan had the opportunity to travel to Benghazi twice and work with International Children’s Heart Foundation.  It was then she learned about the plans for a year long program run by ICHF in Benghazi.  After passing her General Surgery Boards, she was granted 1 year to train in her specialty of choice, and she made the decision to travel to Benghazi to learn pediatric cardiac surgery with ICHF.  When I asked her why she wanted to be a part of this program, she told me “because the work they do is serious, fast, there’s no wasting time, and it’s only pediatrics.”

Dr. Rodrigo Soto, an ICHF surgeon, has been the lead surgeon for the majority of the program up to this point working with Wegdan.  In his words, Wegdan is, “a dedicated, hard-working and skilled young surgeon who I believe will be a leading pediatric cardiac surgeon in Libya in the years to come.”  Wegdan has also found great value in Dr. Soto’s leadership as well. “I like that his work is first,” she said. ”Dr. Rodrigo always wants to be perfect, and I like this too.  In the OR, he is laughing and there is no tension.  I learn more than just the skills in surgery, but also how to be a leader in the OR.  I wish that we would work together longer.  I wish that we would work together forever.”  Along with the surgical skills she is gaining from Dr. Soto, she is also learning to work with the cardiologists to decide the correct surgical repair for her patients, and also about ICU management.  “I hope that I can operate independently and make good decisions regarding cases and manage situations as a good team leader,” she said.  Listening to her speak, it is evident that she has found a life altering opportunity in the ICHF program in Libya, and she is soaking every bit of it up.

Despite Wegdan’s impeccable work ethic, her desire to learn, and her natural abilities as a surgeon, she was missing one of the most important tools required to be a successful pediatric cardiac surgeon, a pair of loupes.  Surgical loupes are special magnifying glasses worn by surgeons that allow them to see the structures of the heart better and allow them to place each stitch in a precise location.  This is especially important in pediatric cardiac surgery when the patient can be as small as 2 kilograms.  They are also essential to perform complex cases like arterial switches, which she yearns to do, that require delicate work with the miniscule coronary arteries on neonatal babies.  Up to this point, she has been extremely limited in the type of cases she can perform independently because she was unable to see what she needed to see.  It needed to be a simple operation, such as an ASD closure or PDA ligation, and it needed to be on a child that was large enough for her to see what she was doing with her naked eye.  Because of her commitment to the program, her enthusiasm to learn, and the promising future she holds, Dr. Soto, on behalf of ICHF, started the January surgical block by presenting Wegdan with a brand new pair of surgical loupes.  This gift will increase her learning curve tremendously, and will ultimately change the work she is able to do as a surgeon.  It is a gift not just for this year, but also for her career.  Most surgeons operate with the same pair of loupes their entire career.  Dr. Soto shared that he has been using the same loupes for 18 years and, when he has tried to change to new ones, he always goes back to the old ones because they “just aren’t the same.”  With the new loupes, “she will be more precise in her work and start performing surgery on smaller kids where loupes are essential,” says Dr. Soto.  Wegdan was surprised and extremely grateful for the generous gift.  For 2 days, we would find her sitting in the common room reading her textbook while wearing the loupes.  This is a technique to train your eyes and learn how to focus the loupes.  This week, Wegdan had the opportunity to wear her new loupes in surgery, and with a huge smile on her face, she said, “for the first time, I see the things clear and near to me.”

Wegdan has relocated to Benghazi for the year, and she has become a permanent fixture with the ICHF family in Benghazi.  When she’s not working, you can find her sharing meals with the team or challenging Dr. Soto to a game of Ping-Pong.  She is not only appreciated for her work in the operating room, but she is an asset to the entire team from cardiology to anesthesiology to intensive care.  She is always available to help us at any time, day or night, whether it be to translate for us, to help us navigate the hospital, or to send someone out to the store for us.  She has been a joy to get to know.  Not only is she a promising surgeon, she is also a caring, compassionate woman who is full of energy and full of life.