Steady Hand: How to Do Open-Heart Surgery in a Deadly Mexican Earthquake
Agence France-Presse
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October 26, 2017

Handout picture released by the Mexican Social Security Institute press office showing doctor David Arellano, center, conducting a surgery at the La Raza hospital in Mexico City (IMSS)

When the ground started shaking in Mexico City on September 19, many people ran out into the street. Not David Arellano. In the middle of performing open-heart surgery on a newborn, the pediatric surgeon just concentrated harder. “The shaking was very violent, very intense. We had to hold down our equipment in the operating room,” he said of his experience during the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that hit Mexico a month ago, killing 369 people.

Arellano, 57, knows a thing or two about working under pressure. He was also in open-heart surgery when a previous earthquake hit on September 7, and managed to save the life of his nine-year-old patient despite the violent shaking. The second earthquake hit Mexico City even harder, causing 39 buildings to collapse-including one across the street from Arellano’s hospital. He watched as it came crashing to the ground in an enormous cloud of dust.

Then he got back to work operating the apparatus keeping his patient’s blood flowing. “If you let yourself panic, you’ll probably do something stupid. It helped knowing we had a patient connected to a machine” that her life depended upon, he said in his office at the La Raza Medical Center, a public hospital. Video footage from the operating theater that day shows Arellano and his team bracing themselves and the table where their tiny patient lies, their calm literally unshakeable despite the tremors pitching the room back and forth.

Arellano performs seven to eight operations a week. He says he has to go in prepared for every possibility, including an earthquake-something Mexicans, who live atop five tectonic plates, are all too used to. His hospital’s earthquake protocol is to evacuate the first two floors. From the third floor up, people are supposed to stay inside and gather at designated meeting points. But the seventh-floor operating room is another story: everyone has to stay exactly where they are. “Shaking or not, these patients are depending on extracorporeal circulation (with a machine) to stay alive. And keeping the machine working depends on the people in the room,” he said.

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