Cardiac surgeon Dr. Leonard N. Girardi is one of the doctors featured on ABC’s “NY Med,” which takes place at New York Presbyterian Hospital. He grew up in Sewickley before going to Harvard and graduating in 1985. At Cornell University Medical College, he did his residency in cardiothoracic surgery. The show, which is in its second season, features eight doctors, including Dr. Mehmet Oz, host of the “Dr. Oz Show.” It airs Thursday evenings at 10 p.m.
You see the body in such a technical way. Has that impacted your belief system?
Geez, that’s an interesting question. Well, I grew up Catholic and went to St. James School in Sewickley. I will say this much: There are sometimes things that happen that we do everything as well as we possibly could do it, and the patient may not survive it and has a major complication. You sometimes ask yourself: Why did it happen to this particular person, and what’s sort of the bigger picture plan there?
It hasn’t shaken my core belief in Catholicism. By the same token, you look up to the heavens and say: What’s going on here? Why did this happen to this person? If you are a heart surgeon and you are doing a lot of heart surgery, at some point you are going to have some patients not do so well. You are going to have some questions about why that happens. You are not going to express that to too many people.
So holding a beating heart in your hand — what is that like? How often do you do that?
Every day [laughing]. You put your hands in the chest to move the heart around and it is beating and moving around. We do things inside the heart and we have to stop the heart, so it changes up depending on what you are doing.
Do you remember the first time you did that?
I remember the first time I did a heart operation as the attending surgeon, the person responsible. When you are training, you do a lot of things, but you are so focused on your training and not messing something up that you don’t think about the bigger picture. But when you are finally the person responsible, yeah, that gets your attention. You certainly think about all the things you want to do right. It is kind of like a checklist for a pilot. You don’t want to leave any steps off. Even though I’ve done it thousands and thousands of times, it is a serious business and we take it that way.
How do you feel about being filmed? Did you have any concerns about it?
I wasn’t too excited about it when it got started. I’m not much for drama and I don’t have a burning desire to be a television star by any stretch of the imagination. For the people who do it, well, God bless them, but that is certainly not for me.
Number one, I think it is good for the hospital. We want to promote New York Presbyterian as being one of the best hospitals in the country. If this helps us spread the word to people in and around New York and the region, so be it. I’m happy to do that. That is kind of where it got started. The hospital thought it would be good, and they asked a few of us if we would be willing to do it.
Do you think the cameras alter how patients behave or even how you behave when they are rolling?
It doesn’t affect how I behave as far as the operations go and being in the operating room. I do think when you are making rounds [and] you know there is a camera there and you have a mic on, you are going to watch what you say a little bit. You might not behave exactly as you would if that camera or mic weren’t there.
I don’t know if it affects the patients’ behavior or not. They are actually the first ones to get the ball rolling. They are the ones that agree or disagree to participate. Once they do, then we are sort of contractually obligated to be part of that scene. I mean, if I were going through a major cancer operation or a major medical thing, personally, I wouldn’t want that on national television. But some people do, and God bless ’em. They have done well with it.
I imagine being a surgeon is hard on your personal life. Has being on television created a new set of issues with women chasing you?
[Laughing] No, no, I don’t have any groupies. I don’t have that going on, thank God.
Wthin the hospital, you get more notoriety. It just mostly sets you up for a lot of abuse from your colleagues and the O.R. staff and the techs and everybody else. They love giving you a hard time. But walking down the street, it has never, ever been an issue for me.
Some patients will come in and say “I saw you on “NY Med.” They seem to like it a lot that their doctor is on TV. It means something to them, but I am not really sure why.
Were you on the “Late Show with David Letterman” because you were part of the team that worked on him?
No, I wasn’t actually part of that team. I was asked to come on last year and promote “NY Med.” So I got to spend some one-on-one time in the chair, which was a challenge.
I bet. I would be very nervous. Did they prep?
I sure was. They do a little bit .. He might talk to you about this or that but at the end of the day he might go off on a different tangent, and you are on your own. You are kind of prepared for that. I mean, it’s not what I do for a living so I was very grateful that he was somewhat merciful.
So what about doctors having a God complex. Have you witnessed it or had to suppress it in yourself?
I certainly don’t think I have it. I have come across it and you hear about it. You know if you are a heart surgeon and you really believe you walk on water, then you, to me, have a serious mental problem because there are so many things out of our control at times.
If you are a heart surgeon and you are doing a lot of heart surgery, just statistically speaking, there are going to be patients who don’t make it. That should immediately humble you. So, no matter what you think or how good you think you are, everybody has patients who don’t make it. That person who doesn’t make it has children or a wife or husband, parents, family, friends, and like it or not, you are the focal point of what went wrong. Even if you did everything perfectly, you are still the person who is responsible, and you go back and think about it at night over a scotch or a glass of wine. I just don’t understand how you can have a God complex and do what we do. We are far from perfect. I can tell you that.
Speaking of that, have you ever had a patient who came back and said they had an out-of-body experience?
No, I haven’t. I have had some people tell me that they have had a change in how their thinking goes. Recently, I operated on a young man with a genetic disorder that gives people aneurysms. He was having his fifth operation. This was an operation where we had to cool down his body to 18 degrees to work on one major portion of his aortic arch. It requires cooling the body and putting them in suspended animation.
He woke up with a clarity he said he never had. Now he’s writing down ideas. He’s got different things going on in his head. I don’t know whether that is a result of the surgery, or he just had five bouts of anesthesia and the stuff has finally gotten to him. I don’t know.
Patricia Sheridan: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2613 or follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pasheridan.