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Q&A with Dr Viljee Jonker

How does a cardiothoracic surgeon differ from a cardiologist?

A paediatric Cardiologist is a Paediatrician that further specialised in cardiac diseases and abnormalities. An adult Cardiologist is a specialist physician that further specialised in adult cardiac diseases. They assess cardiac conditions and treat medically where possible and appropriate. If a disease that presents to a Cardiologist requires further corrective intervention, the Cardiologist then refers the cases to a Cardiothoracic Surgeon for surgical correction of the disorder. Cardiothoracic Surgeons not only operate on congenital and acquired diseases of the heart, but also diseases that affect the lungs. Do you have a specific ritual before going to operate? How do you prepare for surgeries?

I pray the morning before and evening after a procedure. The morning for strength and guidance and a clear mind, and in the evening I give thanks and pray for a good outcome. I like to over-prepare for any procedure. I make sure that I understand exactly what the problem is and what the best way to deal with the condition is. I try to anticipate any possible complication. I like to have a specific plan in place for any possible scenario that may arise. I have a backup plan for a backup plan for a backup plan. I like to do literature research when it is a unique challenge or a rare case and will often contact my mentors for some added guidance when necessary. One of your fondest memories in the operating room?

As a Fellow during my training when we took the cross clamp off my first arterial switch procedure and the heart immediately started beating well. The patient went home five days later. Do you find that you sometimes get attached to your patients and/or them to you?

I believe that sincere honesty and devoted interaction is the only way to build a relationship, whether a personal or professional relationship. It is easy to get attached to patients and their families. Families are in a vulnerable position and we have to respect them entrusting us with their dear child’s or family member’s life. Many of these children will have repeat surgeries in future. It is important to keep the family’s trust and maintain mutual respect through this journey. What do you love about your job?

I love working with patients where you can see the immediate effect the procedure has had on their lives and how it positively impacts the whole family. Managing the complexity of the disease and integrating the anatomical abnormality with its effect on physiology is very stimulating. What is the most difficult part about being a cardiothoracic surgeon? Dealing with emotions when we are unable to help a patient have a good outcome. And spending a lot of time away from the family. Any memories that are more prominent than others?

Every single case and its outcome is equally important. Every single family is equally important. The cases that I currently think of on a daily basis are our first transplant and first mechanical heart implantation. Your greatest achievement practicing as a surgeon? Is there something you are most proud of?

Starting the transplant and artificial heart programme, Maboneng Heart and Lung Institute, in collaboration with the University of Alberta Stollery Children’s Hospital and Netcare Sunninghill Hospital. Do you have a mantra/saying that keeps you going when things get tough? And is it the same when things are going well?

When things are tough, Winston Churchill, “If you are going through hell, keep going.”

When things are going well, Warren Buffet: “Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago”.

A stand-out moment in the last week?

Sadly, the moment standing out is the devastatingly sad news of our favourite transplant patient that passed away last week, 10 months after receiving a new heart. What a beautiful patient she was. She will remain in our minds forever. Our prayers and deepest condolences go out to her family and friends.

Do you have a nickname in the hospital?

Not that I’m aware off. But I may be wrong. Haha


© Maboneng Heart and Lung Institute 2017 | Featured Image: Maboneng Heart and Lung Institute

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