Prosciutto Heart

Nardin Samuel delicately peels back the small, prosciutto-like aortic valves of the heart suspended in front of her face, before slowly removing them with scissors.

This is the 25-year-old’s first attempt at heart surgery.

“I never even played the game Operation as a child,” says Samuel. “I would always just play video games with my brother.”

But don’t worry — the heart in question is a pig’s and this is just part of a unique simulation program offered to medical students at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital.

Samuel is one of 20 first-year medical students from the University of Toronto who are taking part in this year’s Surgical Exploration and Discovery Program.

Launched in 2012, the two-week summer program isn’t part of the university’s regular curriculum, but rather was the brainchild of the students themselves.

Neil D’Souza, the program’s director, says many students felt they didn’t get enough time in operating rooms in their first year of schooling to make informed decisions about whether they wanted to become specialized surgeons or medical doctors.

“So this program is almost like a European Contiki tour,” D’Souza says. “You get a quick survey of certain hotspots.”

This whirlwind tour allows students the opportunity to take part in hands-on simulations of vascular and cardiac surgery, as well as career talks with professional surgeons.

Dr. George Christakis, a professor in the university’s department of surgery, says the program is also aimed at showing the students they should choose a branch of surgery that best suits their personality.

“Many of our plastic surgeons are artists or musically inclined for example,” Christakis says. “Others build tree houses or decks for their backyards, so they tend to make great orthopedic surgeons.”

The program has proved to be immensely popular with the medical students — this year there were 49 applicants for only 20 placements.

The course is largely subsidized by the university but students do have to pay a nominal $75 fee to cover some of the costs.

On the penultimate day of the course students are being shown how to remove calcified aortic valves from the heart, and to replace them with a prosthetic substitute.

“Before this I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to get into surgery at all,” says Samuel. “But I feel inspired after yesterday’s neurosurgery session and feel that I have a real affinity for that area.”