Working to the beat of the heart: Perfusionist Christos Calaritis shares his passion for the job

- Christine Zeindler
“Everyday has its surprises,” says Christos Calaritis, a perfusionist at The Montreal Children’s Hospital (MCH) of the McGill University of Health Centre (MUHC). Perhaps it’s his 12-year experience at the MCH or his competitive sports background that keeps him rolling with the punches. Or more than likely, it’s his love of the job. While assisting during complicated surgeries and putting in long hours monitoring the machinery that keeps patients alive, Christos has a positive and upbeat attitude.
I don’t consider it a job – it’s more than that – it’s a vocation. I find my work very rewarding and I get a lot of satisfaction from taking care of patients with heart or lung disease. It’s what I do.” 
Perfusion: Keeping the oxygen flowing
At the MCH a perfusionist must fulfil three main functions. The first is to run the heart-lung machine that artificially replaces a child’s heart or lung functions during open-heart surgery. This machine pumps oxygenated blood through the body.
The second is a key involvement in the ECMO (Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation) program at the MCH. “This program provides support for babies and older patients that might have lung or heart problems and are not able to provide the body with enough blood flow and oxygen,” says Christos. During ECMO, blood is circulated outside the body and it is filled with oxygen by an artificial lung and circulates it with the help of an external pump, allowing the heart or lungs to rest. This is similar to the heart-lung bypass machine used during open-heart surgery. The MCH is the only provincial referral centre for neonatal respiratory ECMO, and receives patients from throughout the province.
Lastly, MCH perfusionists are also experts in other life-support equipment, such as ventricular assist devices (VADs). These devices, such as the Berlin Heart, are mechanical hearts, which bridge patients to heart transplants. 
Patients are the reward
“Babies are not necessarily small adults,” says Christos. “Our patients are anywhere from 3-100 kgs, so we have to stay on our toes when caring for them. Treating this wide range of patients is an added challenge that I enjoy and keeps me engaged.”
“What makes my job so rewarding is seeing a patient recover. The resiliency of children is really amazing.” Christos remembers a patient who was born with a heart defect and a few years later ended up in the ICU with a malfunctioning heart. The patient was connected to a Berlin heart for 109 days, until he received a heart transplant. “The final surgery was 10 years ago and the patient still comes to see me. It is these successful outcomes that keep us going. People don’t realize how many hours, days and weeks that we have to invest so that we have results as good as these.”
Christos is also very impressed with the children’s optimism. Currently he is monitoring Vincent Lambert, a young man who has also waiting for a heart transplant since September 2011 “Although these patients are very sick, they still think about others and are a joy to be around.”
Team work
“We are fortunate to have such an excellent medical team,” adds Christos. “They are the very best.”
The team is also fortunate to have Christos as one of the players. In the fall of 2010 Christos’ received the MUHC’s Director General’s Award, acknowledging his commitment to the Institution, and six months later he received The Montreal Children’s Hospital’s Award of Excellence.
“I’m a hard worker, and I do this gladly for the patients,” he says.