The clinical perfusionist is a critical member of the surgical team during open heart surgeries, when the surgeons must stop the patient’s heart. The perfusionist operates the heart-lung machine, which maintains the patient’s blood flow while the patient is on bypass, and in effect, assumes the function of both the heart and lungs. “We’re kind of a physiologist in bypass and valve surgery in that we have to know how normal physiology works and then how it changes when we take away the heart and take away the brain, the kidneys and the other major organ systems,” explains Ben Greenfield, board-certified clinical perfusionist.
The perfusionist closely monitors and controls the temperature of the patient’s blood as it moves through the heart-lung machine, administers any required blood products or medications, and keeps both the surgeon and anesthesiologist fully informed. In addition, the perfusionist must also monitor the cell saver, which washes the blood lost during surgery so that the red blood cells can be given back to the patient.
- General hospitals
- Heart specialty hospitals
- Specialty clinics
- Cardiac surgeons
- Independent group practices
Perfusionists primarily work in the operating room. In some surgeries, the patient may remain on a temporary balloon pump for cardiac support until the heart recovers. The perfusionist would stay with the patient until he or she is moved to the ICU unit and has stabilized. The perfusionist works in life and death situations every day. “It’s one of the most stressful jobs in the United States,” states clinical perfusionist, Ben Greenfield, “but with the stressful aspect, another aspect would be rewarding. Because when you persevere through those stressful times, and you get to the end, that feeling or reward that you get internally, that intrinsic motivation is pretty amazing.” The work schedule is generally a 5-day, 40-hour week. However, as members of the open-heart surgical teams, perfusionists are required to take call and be available for emergency procedures.
Employment of perfusionists is expected to grow in the coming years according to the American Society for ExtraCorporeal Technology (AmSECT). Demand will stem from the prevalence of heart disease and the aging population, because older people have a higher incidence of heart disease and other complications.
- Ability to follow detailed instructions
- Conscientiousness and reliability
- Manual dexterity and mechanical aptitude
- Critical thinking skills
- Emotional stability and confidence
- Ability to work under pressure and handle stress
- Physical and mental stamina to handle the demands of lengthy surgeries
- Ability to work as a team
- Ability to learn scientific as well as mechanical information
To become a clinical perfusionist, an individual must first earn a bachelor of science degree and then complete a one- or two-year perfusion education program. The program must be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. A certifying examination given by the American Board of Cardiovascular Perfusion (ABCP) is also required by most states including Nebraska. A candidate must perform a minimum of 75 perfusions to sit for the certification exam.
Perfusionists must also stay current with technological advances or changes in the profession, so education is ongoing.
Programs in Nebraska
- University of Nebraska Medical Center – Omaha (Master’s)
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Other careers that involve working in the surgical setting or working in cardiac care:
- Cardiac sonographer/Vascular sonographer
- Invasive cardiovascular technologist
- Nurse anesthetist
- Registered Nurse
- Surgical Technologist
To locate accredited perfusion education programs:
For more information about Perfusion:
For information about board certification: