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« Staff Spotlight

Allied Health | Vancouver

Staff Spotlight – Cara Summers, Perfusionist

To continue our celebration of Perfusion Week, we’re excited to highlight Cara, Cardiovascular Perfusionist at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH).

For Cara, Perfusion Week is “a chance for the hardworking perfusion teams across the country to be recognized for their outstanding contributions to healthcare in Canada. It’s a great moment to shine the spotlight on a typically unheard-of specialty.”

Perfusionists work in a variety of settings, including operating rooms during cardiac surgery, vascular surgery, specialized chemotherapy procedures and lung transplants; the intensive care unit caring for patients on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO); the cardiac catheterization laboratory/cardiac care unit and in the emergency department. Their main role is operating heart-lung machines designed to maintain the circulation of blood and oxygen throughout the body when the patient’s organs are unable to function on their own, essentially replacing the function of the heart and/or lungs.

Relocating and working in Vancouver

Before coming to VGH, Cara had worked at Toronto General Hospital in their ex vivo lung perfusion program, which was originally how she found out about the perfusion profession. “I was enticed by the autonomy of the role and always had an interest in working in an operating room/intensive care setting. While I trained at the Cardiovascular Perfusion program in Toronto, Vancouver General Hospital was starting up their own ex-vivo lung perfusion program, so it seemed like a fitting move for the start of my career and past experience. Plus, with the mountains and ocean nearby, how could I resist the big move across the country,” Cara explains.

Cara tells us that in her role, she’s placed at the forefront of some of the most exciting fields of surgical practice and critical care medicine in which she directly interacts with a variety of healthcare disciplines as part of an integrated team. “I love the excitement of problem-solving acute issues and the hands-on aspect of the job allowing us to significantly improve patients’ lives,” she says.

Working as a perfusionist can be a challenging career, managing life-threatening situations and medical conditions, which makes working in a supportive environment all the more important. Cara tells us that she has a fantastic team at VGH, “we are like family and always willing to step in for each other if someone is overworked when we can. Compassion and empathy for each other and for oneself are at the forefront of care at VGH and I see this in every department I work in across the hospital.”

Cara explains that though the scope of the perfusionist profession has expanded considerably over the years, the values of caring for everyone, always learning and striving for better results have always endured. For daily data collection to analyze how to provide the highest level of patient-centered care possible, to attending and presenting at conferences and engaging in student teaching, perfusionists fully embody these values. “If I’m not learning, I’m not growing towards becoming a better care provider,” says Cara.

Working through a global pandemic

Since the onset of the pandemic, Cara’s role has shifted from mainly surgical support to now being mainly staffed in the Intensive Care Units, supporting patients with COVID-19 who are refractory to conventional treatments and mechanical ventilation. She explains that when a ventilator ceases to be enough to support a COVID patient’s ravaged lungs, they can be placed on ECMO to pump blood outside their body, adding oxygen and removing carbon dioxide, then returning the blood to the patient to sustain their life. “While working through a pandemic to this degree wasn’t necessarily what we signed up for, it has provided lots of new learning opportunities and far more ECMO experience than I could have imagined. These machines save a large number of patients that would have had 100 percent mortality without it,” says Cara.

Some of the most exciting moments for Cara are when her COVID-19 ECMO patients are successfully weaned off the ECMO machine. “We have had a lot of success with our ECMO patients, and it definitely keeps me motivated. Every case is serious, every patient is different, and making sure they make it to recovery is one of the most rewarding experiences – and I get to do it again and again,” she says.

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