Stephen Westaby has operated on more than 12,000 hearts and is estimated to have saved 97% of his patients.
This in itself is impressive.
But the 73-year-old doctor is also a pioneer of internationally recognized innovation for helping to develop and improve the use of heart pumps, artificial hearts and circulatory support technology to circulate blood throughout the body.
He has always had a knack for medicine and said he decided to become a heart surgeon at the age of seven after seeing a heart and lung machine in action on the BBC medical series Your Life in Their Hands.
Despite this, Vestabi says his professional career would have been very different if he had not been hit in the head at 18 years old.
How did it all start?
Grandfather and father
The illness and horrific death of his beloved grandfather confirmed Vestabi’s decision to become a cardiac surgeon.
“One day we were walking a dog, and he put his hand on his chest and fell to his knees. About half an hour later he got up and we returned home,” he told BBC Outlook.
“We did not know he had a heart attack. Then I saw that he had another and another, and then he had severe heart failure, which led to a miserable existence. Finally, one day I came back from school and saw a doctor behind my grandfather’s house. I was silent and saw my grandfather turning blue, unable to breathe. “
It was this same grandfather who realized that his grandson had the high skills of a surgeon.
“He noticed that I was ambidextrous. He taught me to draw and saw that I could draw with both hands. “
Although Vestabi was mostly right-handed, he could handle a pen, a brush (and possibly surgical instruments) with both hands.
Thanks to this dexterity and extremely accurate spatial awareness, which allowed him to draw well, he already had two points in his favor to become who he wanted to be.
But there was a factor that bothered him.
“Surgeons must have the right temperament,” Vestabi explained in an article in the British Daily Mail.
“You must be able to explain death to grieving family members. You must have the courage to replace your boss when he is tired, the courage to take responsibility for postoperative care of young babies or face disasters in the “ambulance”.
“I was a shy, steadfast boy who was afraid of his own shadow.”
So much so that when he was offered to study at Cambridge, one of the best universities in the world, he turned it down, thinking he would feel out of place.
Instead, he chose Charing Cross Medical School in London, thinking there might be a more restrained student life. Initially, his university life was monotonous.
However, during this period he decides to learn to play rugby, which will change his life forever.
A blow to the head
In 1968, “we went on tour playing rugby. On a gray winter’s day, we played against a Cornish team that had very strong players. I was hit on the head, breaking the frontal bone of the skull. “
“I saw the stars in the locker room, and instead of taking me to the hospital, these medical students took me to a pub. After a few pints of beer and loss of consciousness, I woke up very sick the next day. “
He was finally sent to the hospital. Not only would Vestabi miss the rugby tour, it could be the end of his medical career. But the incident, oddly enough, had the opposite effect.
“On the first night in the hospital, I, this shy and withdrawn boy, flirted with the nurse who looked after me.”
When they tried to talk to him, he responded more aggressively than ever.
Something has changed.
The radiograph revealed a small crack in the frontal bone of the skull.
“The head injury affected the part of my brain responsible for critical thinking and risk aversion. This explains my newfound lack of inhibition, irritability and accidental aggression. “
Psychologists’ tests showed that I got high scores on the so-called “inventory of psychopathic personality”, and the psychologist said: “Don’t worry, most good students are psychopaths. Especially surgeons. ” It was expected that after the swelling subsided, everything would return to normal, but, fortunately for me, this did not happen. “
The result of the head injury was a decrease in fear and inhibition of Stephen Westby.
“Suddenly, I became the social secretary of the medical school, which organized university evenings, and soon became the captain of rugby and cricket.”
“I didn’t seem to feel stressed and became a regular risk, an adrenaline rush that constantly craves excitement. In short, I came out of a head injury unrestrained and relentlessly competitive.”
Now Mr. Westaby had the “perfect combination of a successful surgeon’s skills”: coordination, dexterity, and courage.
“The last thing you want is a scared surgeon.”
Stephen Westaby lived for the next four decades in this tense zone between life and death, interrupted by a heartbeat.
Among other things, he specializes in the complex field of pediatric surgery and infant surgery and develops methods of heart surgery without intensive care.
But one area in particular fascinates him: the potential of artificial hearts.
“You can help people with heart failure, but heart transplants are very rare. To give you this organ, you need someone to die. “
“I always thought there had to be a better way, a mechanical solution.” But artificial hearts were too big, bulky and impractical.
“One day in 1993, I met an engineer working on artificial hearts named Robert Jarvik.” This was the beginning of a partnership that would change cardiac surgery.
Robert Jarvik invented a pump that helped circulate blood throughout the body, but he did not know how to make it work. That’s where Dr. Vestabi came from. IS
Together they created the Jarvik 2000, a miniature turbine with battery power.
“The first person to own a Jarvik in 2000 was a 59-year-old man named Peter Houghton.”
The Oxford Research Laboratory told Stephen Westaby that he could only insert the device into a patient with a lifespan of only a few weeks.
“When he was brought to my office in a wheelchair, his ankles swelled, his lips turned blue, and his stomach swelled. He reminded me of my grandfather before he died, and I desperately wanted to help him. “
Peter will live another 8 years, much longer than anyone with an artificial heart at the time.
Meanwhile, Vestabi was gaining fame, and not just in medical circles.
In 2004, he received a phone call reminding him of an echo of the past.
“There were TV producers who wanted to do a show with me called ‘Your Life in Their Hands.’
“I immediately said I wanted to talk to them because it was a show I watched when I was 7.”
Decades after watching the series that inspired him to become a doctor, Stephen Westby became the protagonist of one of the episodes of the show.