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The Lady with a Heart

"Dr. Virginia Gudas"

Virginia Gudas knew from an early age growing up in Montreal that she was going to be a doctor. She didn't visualize that one day she would be the chief heart transplant surgeon at Vancouver General Hospital.

"The moment I knew I wanted to go into the field of transplantation began when Christian Barnard made medical history with the world's first heart transplant.

As for being attracted to medicine in the first place, my interest was based on two things: biology and the interaction with people. It made a good combination as far as I was concerned."

Virginia studied medicine at Memorial University in Newfoundland and at Queen's in Ontario. For 18 months she studied heart transplants at Stanford in California and at 34 years old became the chief heart transplant surgeon at Vancouver General Hospital. She also specializes in other cardiovascular and thoracic operations, such as heart-lung.

The Barnard Heart Transplant really changed her life however.

"It was back in 1967 and it boggled my mind. From that moment on I knew I had a goal, something to work towards, to achieve."

But wasn't she afraid she might fail in a field that, until then, had been pretty well the domain of men?

"It's still a predominantly male field; I'm the only female doctor involved in heart transplants in Canada. But, that's because, as so often happens, women have not had adequate role models. Also, it is very difficult for a woman to have a full time career and to be a wife and mother. These both deter many women from going into such specialized fields.

"In fact, there aren't enough women in the surgical specialties of medicine. It's not because they lack the aptitude or skill, but it is a matter of interest and how badly you want it.

"It's a cultural thing too: I'm being interviewed today by broadcasters and journalists because I am a female working in this area. I've been able to surmount all that because I did have good role models and Iíve forgotten the

fact that I'm a female and don't let that deter me, or make me feel any different from my male colleagues."

It's a full time job and one that keeps her hopping.

"Sometimes it's non-stop. I'm on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week for transplants in addition to my regular duties as a heart surgeon. It is stressful at times. But I enjoy what I do and I put in many hours."

Virginia, who performed British Columbia's first heart transplant in December 1988, often must go directly to the donor whose heart is to be removed. This sometimes means flying to the donor hospital. She removes the heart from the brain dead donor and has four hours to insert it in the recipient. After the lengthy operation, the patient is monitored in intensive care and Virginia goes to the Doctor's lounge to relax, hoping she won't get 'beeped' too soon.

"I like to walk and I'd love to walk all around Stanley Park but I get beeped too often and there aren't enough phones out there."

The issue that affects most doctors is the death of a patient. Although her patients are in a high-risk group compared to, say, a gallstone sufferer, it doesn't make facing the death of a patient any easier.

"I see death from the perspective of my training. We all do, whether doctor, nurse, paramedic. We are trained to expect it. It's never easy. After we have done our best, and the patient dies, what else can we do? It is particularly hard if the patient is young. If someone older dies because of rejection or infection, those are the realities of transplantation. If I've done my best, and I always try to, then I don't feel devastated by it.

"You can't work in this business without hoping that next year there'll be a better way. You keep hoping and expanding your own knowledge in that direction. Twenty years ago, when heart transplants started in the U.S. one out of every four survived. Now it's four out of five. It's only because of the improved methods of how we treat rejection and infection that we've come such a long way.

"The result is we can now return a patient to a way of life they may not have enjoyed for 20 or 30 years. We're not perfect; we're still going to lose patients, but that's part of the learning process."

Virginia has important advice for anyone planning a medical career:

"When I'm lecturing to interns who want to get into my field, I convey more by attitude than words that this is an exciting, important job. I don't consider myself a role model, but I suppose I am whether I want to be or not. I am not a chauvinist and I don't like to single out women in particular. But if I can be a good role model I'll do my best to propagate the profession. I encourage students to enter the field of bypass surgery because it is exciting. Last but not least, I think it is important in any form of work that they get enthusiastic and excited about it. I find it a great shame that many people with aptitude never really get motivated.

"If our children got a genuine interest in school, early on, we wouldn't have the high school drop-outs we now have. I'm not saying that university is the be all and the end all, but no matter what career they choose, it should be fulfilling. ] think spending eight hours a day doing something that is loathsome is a punishment. The two days holiday out of seven days a week is a very small reward.

"When this heart-transplantation business I'm in becomes unenjoyable for me I will seriously look for another career. But right now, this is just what I want to be doing!" Dr. Virginia Gudas... another Canadian Achiever.

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