Fixer of Broken Hearts

John Garrett, chief of cardiac surgery at Virginia Hospital Center, discusses life in the O.R., cooking at home and Arlington's overall heart health.

NAME: John Garrett

AGE: 64

CURRENT JOB: Chief of the Department of Cardiac, Thoracic and Vascular Surgery and Chairman of the Board of Directors at Virginia Hospital Center

LIVES IN: Arlingwood (a five-minute drive from the hospital), with his wife, Mary

POINTS OF PRIDE: Founded Virginia Hospital Center’s cardiac surgery program in 1989; served as chairman of the hospital’s Department of Surgery from 1993 to 1997; father of five children, ages 20 to 35

FIRST JOB: I worked at a Burger King and I made $1.10 an hour. I did all the different jobs—making drinks, hamburgers, milkshakes, french fries.

SOUTHERN ROOTS: I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. My family did a lot of hunting and fishing, like everybody in the South used to do. In season, we hunted deer, duck, quail, dove.

YOUTHFUL ASPIRATIONS: I’ve wanted to be a surgeon since I was 7. My father was a surgeon and I always wanted to be like my father. I never considered doing anything else. I was not squeamish. I was always dissecting roadkill or any sort of unusual animal we would kill hunting.

LIFE IN THE O.R.: I usually get to the hospital between 6 and 6:30 a.m. I do 15 to 18 surgeries a week—heart surgery and also big blood vessel and lung surgery. I have an office with a desk and staff, but most of my time is spent in the operating room, so that’s really my office. To this day, when I open a chest, I never stop feeling a thrill when I see a human heart beating. Sometimes all it takes is one stitch to save a life.

WHAT I MOST OFTEN TREAT: Coronary artery disease that requires bypass surgery. Also valvular heart disease, which tends to affect people as they get older. There are a couple of valves in the heart—the aortic valve and the mitral valve—that eventually may need to be repaired or replaced. Generally, I think Arlingtonians are younger than their stated age. They’re in reasonably good shape.

SURPRISING FACT: Heart surgery is actually very neat and tidy and precise. Usually, it’s not bloody and it’s not a mess. It’s organized and it’s all technical. You’re sewing something together, and if it’s not put together right, it will bleed.

THE SURGEON’S MINDSET: I prefer not to greet my patients on the morning of surgery. I tell them I will see them the day before, but the next day it’s pretty much all business. When I enter the operating room, the patient is already covered up with drapes. It’s one way I protect myself emotionally. I detach the person from the technical job that I have to do. While I’m scrubbing my hands—which takes about five minutes—I run over the steps of the operation in my mind, like a checklist.

IT TAKES A TEAM: During open-heart surgery, there are seven people in the room, including nurses, anesthesiologists and the perfusionists who operate the heart-lung machine. One of my big interests is growing the team, recognizing individual abilities and delegating so that staff can reach their maximum potential. I really value my people and what they can offer. These are very skilled people who are working at the top of their game.

ON CELEBRITY: I have a rule that I treat every patient exactly the same. Even if it’s a VIP or a politician, we don’t cut any corners. We don’t do anything differently than we would for someone who’s a charity case.

ON STEREOTYPES: People tend to think of heart surgeons as driven, serious, maybe nerdish. All of those things are true in certain circumstances. Surgery is a very intense time and it needs to be. We try to do a perfect job so that the patient will continue to live. Outside of the operating room, we are just like anybody else. We like music and good food and laughter.

PATIENT EMPATHY: I’ve had both of my rotator cuffs done. It’s humiliating to give up your privacy. You have to wear that gown with no underwear. That experience helped me to be more mindful of what patients go through. On a day-to-day basis, you and I don’t think about pain. But if you’ve had an operation, it hurts. It’s always good to be reminded what the patient is feeling.

TRUE CONFESSION: I’m a little messy at home. I love to cook, but I don’t love to clean up too much. My kids always give me grief about how much of a mess I make in the kitchen, how many pots I use cooking a normal supper.

NEW TRICKS: In heart surgery, as in any field of medicine, you’re constantly changing what you do, so I’m currently learning new skills in the area of electrophysiology [monitoring the heart’s electrical activity] and in some minimally invasive, small-incision surgeries. Professionally, I’m continuing to morph and grow and do new things.

MOONLIGHTING GIG: Outside of the O.R., I’m all about food. After reading The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers in 2006, I cold-called the chef and asked her if I could come out and spend a week working at her restaurant in San Francisco. It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done. I worked double-shifts and did everything, from cleaning anchovies to learning how to slice produce, to cooking roasted chickens on the line. It was unbelievable.

SHARING THE LOVE: I have a smoker that was made for me several years ago. Once a year I’ll cook a couple hundred pork shoulders and feed the entire hospital. We have to do it in shifts. I can put 40 shoulders on at a time. We run the smoker continuously for about three days.

Categories: People