Left: Perry students (from left to right) Bakir Becirevic, Sakina Blackman, Aleisha Starkey and Ross Hawkins look down on heart surgeon George Magovern replacing a woman’s mitral valve. (Photo courtesy Allegheny General Hospital)

A woman lays on an operating table, draped in blue towels and plastic, her open chest cavity revealing her still-beating heart. Large tubes connected to her legs lead deoxygenated blood out of her body and into a machine that fills it with oxygen and pumps back into her body.

For a moment, the heart stops.

“They stopped the heart!” a Perry High School student shouts from the observation dome above the operating room in Allegheny General Hospital.

The heart, not quite willing to give up yet, flutters again. The students stare down, transfixed.

“That’s not unusual,” says a woman with dark, short hair. “It’s trying to figure out what it’s doing.”

That woman is Pat Wolf, coordinator of the hospital’s Open Heart Surgery Observation Program that brings in high school and college students from all over Western Pennsylvania. Today’s students are all from Perry High.

Wolf explains the steps in today’s surgery, a mitral valve replacement. Once the heart stops beating, the machine pumping blood to keep the woman alive, heart surgeon and program founder Dr. George Magovern snips pieces of the valve out of her heart with a long set of scissors. Next he will sew in a new tissue valve, bioengineered from a cow’s heart valve.

Junior Ashley Grzegorczyk was nervous about watching the open heart surgery because television shows make surgery look “really gross.”

“Watching this I feel more comfortable about a career in the medical field,” Grzegorczyk said, adding that she’d like to study DNA and genetic disorders.

Grzegorczyk is far from the only student who’s used the Open Heart Surgery Observation Program as a litmus test for a potential medical career.

The program, started in May 2008, has brought in more than 1,000 students to watch open heart surgeries. One of its benefits, Wolf said, is giving students a chance to see medical careers up close and make an informed decision about whether it’s something they want to pursue.

“Everything that happens down there, they function as a team,” Wolf tells the students. “Everyone down there has a vital job.”

She points out the circulating nurse, who gets the doctor whatever he needs. Then the surgical tech, who hands the doctor all the instruments. There’s also an anesthesiologist and a perfusionist, who operates the machine that keeps the woman alive while her heart is stopped.

Ellen Wright, who teaches the biotech class at Perry High School, started bringing her students in to view open heart surgery last year. To prepare, she taught them about the different parts and functions of the heart.

Wolf said the program has doubled in size each year since Magovern started the program.

“Once a school participates, [the teachers] are so excited, they’re telling their colleagues,” Wolf said. “It’s really grown.”

Sharese Dunmore, a junior interested in becoming a veterinarian, said she might be nervous performing surgery because of everything that could go wrong.

“I don’t know about that. I might have to be an assistant,” she said.

Bakir Becirevic, on the other hand, knows he doesn’t want to be a surgeon, but he’s still interested in a pharmacy career.

“It takes time to learn [medical careers], but it’s rewarding. You save lives. We’re lucky to have people like these,” he said.