An Interview with Ms Karen Booth, Adult Cardiac and Cardiothoracic Transplant Surgeon
Q: Tell me a little about yourself and your career!
My name is Karen Booth. I am a consultant adult Cardiac and Cardiothoracic transplant surgeon that works at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle, since my appointment here in August 2017.
I started off my career with a medical degree at Glasgow University, after which I completed two years of foundation training in the west of Scotland, 3 years of core training in Northern Ireland and 6 years of a Cardiothoracic National Training Scheme. I was one of the first dual Northern Ireland and England appointed trainees completing 4 years of training in the RVH, Belfast and 2 years at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle. I went straight from training into my first consultant surgeon post.
I’m now a clinical lecturer and a PhD Supervisor for Newcastle university, North East Training Lead for Education in Cardiothoracic Surgery, the national Student Co-lead for SCTS (Society for Cardiothoracic Surgery) and have just been appointed as the first Women in Cardiothoracic Surgical Co-Chair in the UK and that’s me!
Q: What made you decide to specialise in Cardiothoracics?
I think it was my love for the operating you perform and my enjoyment of the physiology I would need to understand. Cardiothoracic surgery offers the opportunity to understand many differing surgical pathologies in a wide spectrum such as aortic stenosis that causes heart failure and lung cancer which threatens life expectancy. The inspiration of the specialty to me is in terms of the difference you make to the lives of patients and that’s something that really drives me.
Q: What does a typical day/ week look like in your life at work?
Wednesday- Business meeting and clinic
In the rest of my time, I’m an assigned educational supervisor to trainees in the region and look after medical students on placement. I then use the rest of my free time for research projects and to try to keep things ticking along such as my home life!
Q: What are some of the best parts of your job?
The best part of any surgical job is definitely in theatre. Once you enter that environment, it’s real teamwork and camaraderie with a group of different healthcare professionals that come together with the very common goal of being able to offer life changing surgery for someone. That is just the best bit of the week!
Q: What are some of the most difficult parts of your job?
The most difficult parts of my job are probably the politics within the NHS and the things that can sometimes get in the way of me doing my day-to-day practice. Difficult things can be interpersonal relations within the team. Looking after patients and doing the operating is usually the easiest part and most fun!
Q: Tell me about some of the highlights in your career!
There are definitely some patient related highlights that have really stuck out for me! One example was a very memorable patient who had Cancer and Chemotherapy as a child, which resulted in Dilated Cardiomyopathy and heart failure. Because of her very high level of antibodies and a real lack of realistic opportunity of a heart transplant, she then went on to need a VAD (Ventricular Assist Device) implanted for her heart failure. I met her as a registrar when she developed pump failure due to a clot. I remember the MDT discussion in which she was still felt to be unlikely to get a suitable donor and we had to tell her she would be listed but she should also be prepared to die. She had just had a little girl less than 2 years earlier and I remember the challenges of leaving her behind to remain in hospital and wait on her chance to live with a heart transplant. About 4 months into her hospital stay we got the call we had a suitable donor. I came in on my weekend off work, I was so excited for her and successfully transplanted her. Her daughter came to Newcastle to be with her and as she recovered my family and I took her to the beach as I realised in all the time she had been treated at Freeman, she hadn’t actually seen outside the hospital walls! She was then able to go on and really live her life, spend time with her family and raise her daughter. I’ve kept in touch with her ever since and it was then I knew I was going to be a transplant consultant. I think it’s stories like this that really stand out to me in my career, knowing the real difference you can make to people. This is just one example of many. It was a real privilege to treat her!
Q: What motivates you to be involved in Cardiothoracic Clinical Research?
Cardiothoracic surgery is a speciality that is really driven by evidence-based medicine- you really only perform procedures and treatment strategies when you know that through randomised controlled trials (level 1 evidence) that you’re actually making a significant difference and an impact to the wider patient population. My drive to take part in research stems from this, the way in which everything in Cardiothoracics is so driven by patient outcomes was something that really inspired me to get into it!
Additionally, to get to the end of Cardiothoracic training, you need to have a higher degree and be very active in research and publishing. It’s really the ability to take an idea from the lab bench and translate it into care for patients. Although it can be difficult in a busy clinical job to be able to offer research that is translational, it is the goal. Research allows you to not just benefit the patients you treat, but the wider patient population as well.
You can find some of Ms Booth's publications here
Q: Can you tell me a little about “Save a heart Nigeria” and your involvement with it?
I have really fond memories of one of my first trainer’s back in Belfast called OC Nzewi who’s from Nigeria. It was his personal goal to set up a heart surgery program back in his home country. He came to a group of us in Belfast when I was a registrar and asked if we would help him to do this. I was privileged to be asked to take on such a project and challenge!
I’ve since been on two missions with “Save a Heart Nigeria” and the project has now helped well over 150 patients. It works in collaboration with other international heart surgery mission charities and its goal is to offer lifesaving treatment to people who otherwise wouldn’t have been offered it. It was really an opportunity to work in a challenging healthcare environment, in a place where heart surgery had not been set up before. Some of the stories of the patients I met there are just amazing!
Free healthcare, which we think of as our social right in the UK, is not available in this country and it was tough to see the struggles that patients faced because of this. I was proud of the work I did with them and it was very meaningful. I haven’t been able to do as much since I’ve been at Newcastle, establishing my career, but I still keep in touch with them and support them on the missions that they go on.
Find out more about "Save a heart Nigeria" on their website
Q: Do you have any advice for teens thinking of going into medicine and surgery?
My biggest advice is to keep your focus the whole way through. Whatever you choose to be in life, take every opportunity that comes your way, maximise it and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. You need to be very sure of your foundations and know what you’ll be doing in your career is something that you’ve got a natural talent and ability for. Once you have that, it’s about taking every opportunity that comes your way.
I didn’t know that I wanted to be a cardiothoracic surgeon when I left school and only knew I wanted to do medicine and teach in medicine. Once I got to medical school, I absolutely adored A & E and met a very inspiring mentor in A & E at Crosshouse hospital in Kilmarnock, who’s now the medical director there. I did placements with him and was the first student to do a Self-Selected Module in resuscitation medicine. I spent time with Resuscitation Officers and learnt from other healthcare professionals. By the time I left medical school, I was an instructor for ALS (Advanced Life Support) and became a medical director for the course. I was always just really enthusiastic about the things I was passionate about!
When I went to interview for Cardiothoracic Surgery, I actually didn’t have any surgical specific things on my CV. In the end, it’s actually not about that. It’s about being the right leader and the right type of person that the speciality would want to cultivate and encourage. I think nobody should be put off just because you’ve not spent 3 months in cardiothoracic surgery as a medical student or you’ve not got research outcomes in cardiothoracic surgery. The type of person you are and the type of person you’re going to be is more important!
Q: What are some things you wish you’d known before going into medicine and surgery?
I think when I joined medical school, I thought I could help everybody. That when I got to the end of my degree, I’d be given a bag full of different drugs and kits and I’d be able to go out and help everybody in the world. I now think that was a very naïve impression of the world and the way medicine actually works and practices. At the time, I didn’t realise that there’s just as much value in communication and just as much value in how you treat people as there is in the drugs you can give them and what operations you can perform. To know that you won’t always be able to save and help everybody, but you can only try your best is really important. Medicine doesn’t have an answer and cure for everything and that’s okay.
Q: What are some things you’d like to see in a new generation of doctors and surgeons?
I’d really love to see surgeons that really care about their patients and put their patients at the focus of everything they do. I’d also really love to see a new generation that is just as inspiring as the original generation of Cardiothoracic Surgeons. Cardiothoracic surgery is one of the youngest surgical specialities but is the most innovative of all of them. It really has transformed! If I was a practicing cardiac surgeon 20 years ago, I’d probably do a completely different range of operations. I want to see people who are willing to push limits and boundaries and develop new treatment strategies for people, because I think that cardiothoracic surgery will just continue to evolve. By the end of my career, I don’t think Cardiac Surgery will look the same as what it did at the start of it!
Q: If you could turn back time, would you still go down the same career path?
Absolutely! Life is what you make of it and I absolutely adore my career. I’m really pleased I didn’t turn down any opportunities, that I went for everything and did not let anything put me off!