They’re All Heart: Behind the Scenes at Valencia’s Cardiovascular Technology Program

Inside the cardiac catheterization classroom at Valencia College, Professor Polly Keller spends her days trying to stump her students.

The students, who are studying to become cardiovascular technicians, are learning how to help cardiologists perform life-saving procedures – putting stents in patients’ arteries, inserting catheters and balloons and implanting pacemakers.

And because they have patients’ lives in their hands, Keller pushes her students hard.

Using a computerized mannequin, she simulates the worst possible scenarios that a student might encounter when trying to help a patient with heart problems:  A patient who’s allergic to the contrast dye injected into his veins; a patient who goes into anaphylactic shock; a patient who starts hemorrhaging during a procedure;  or a patient whose kidneys begin to fail.

“Our goal is to simulate every complication they’ll encounter in a hospital,” says Keller, professor of cardiovascular technology. “We want them to be prepared for every scenario.”

For students in the program, the instructors’ scenarios are a challenge. “We love problem-solving,” said Nalini Ghisiawan, a second-year student who transferred from the University of Florida into Valencia’s CVT program “We love hands-on work.”

And it’s that kind of problem-solving attitude that students need to excel as a cardiovascular technologist, Keller says.  While many of the students in the program started out as nursing majors, they gravitated toward CVT for different reasons.  Some decided that nursing wasn’t for them, while the more technically-oriented work of a CVT fit their personalities better. Some are adrenaline junkies – excited by the prospect of working in an environment as demanding and fast-paced as an emergency room.

Oria Marrero, 27, was working at an Orlando cardiology group, scheduling patient surgeries, when she decided to go back to college. In anatomy class, she knew that becoming a cardiovascular tech suited her – especially when her class began studying different organs. “When they teach you the different organs, the heart was the only one that I really found cool,” she says. “I’m not attracted to the lungs and other organs.”

It’s high-stress and hard work, but the students who stay in the program tend to be detail oriented (though some may describe themselves as “anal”), and visual learners. They are also happy to be studying and preparing for a career that will keep them busy – and challenge them every day.

Graduates of the two-year program earn $22 to $25 an hour or about $60,000 a year upon graduation. And last year, 100 percent of the program’s graduates found jobs – most working in catheterization labs at Central Florida hospitals.

“People in this field are constantly learning something new,” says Keller. “The equipment’s always changing.”

During the two-year program, students not only take classes and practice in Valencia’s cath lab, but they also must spend at least 800 hours working in cardiac cath labs at area hospitals. These “clinical rotations” allow students to learn at the side of other cardiovascular technicians and cardiologists.

As CVTs, they work side by side with cardiologists.

And, just as a caddy anticipates what golf club a golfer wants, the CVT anticipates what the cardiologist will do next – and is ready with the correct catheter or guide wire or equipment.  “At that table, you’re like husband and wife,” says Marrero.

And eventually, cardiologists often turn to CVTs for advice. “They earn respect from the physicians.  There will come a point when a cardiologist will turn to them and say, ‘How does Doctor So-and-So do this?’” says Keller. “They ask the CVTs because the CVTs perform these procedures all day long, every day.”

The respect from the physicians is gratifying, but it’s the joy of seeing the patients – before and afterward – that excites these students.

Moise Louis, also in his second year in Valencia’s CVT program, says there’s no greater feeling than watching a patient perk up within minutes after a stent is placed. Someone who has been drained of color and is listless often feels better – and looks better —  immediately after blood begins flowing through what was once a blocked artery.

“That’s what’s so wonderful about this field,” he says. “And patients and their families thank you for saving their lives.”


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