Monday, June 6, 2016 12:00 AM

Up close look at surgery sparks healthcare careers

Eleven-year-old Jonathan Herrera envisioned it would be much like the cartoon depictions he sees on TV commercials for antacids, but instead the real human stomach is sort of lumpy with veins and a yellowish covering. “It was fantastic!” he exclaimed after watching surgeon Kelvin Higa patch up an ulcer during exploratory surgery at Fresno Heart & Surgical Hospital. “The intestines are 32 feet long!”

Jonathan Herrera (center) and his buddies from the boys’ book club at Gibson Elementary show off surgical garb they got after a field trip to watch surgery in action at Fresno Heart & Surgical Hospital.
Jonathan and his buddies from the boys’ book club at Gibson Elementary School were treated to an up-close look at abdominal surgery performed by Dr. Higa, medical director of Fresno Heart & Surgical’s Bariatric & Metabolic Surgery Program. The field trip to watch a surgery in action via a movie-theater-sized screen was the reward for reading “Gifted Hands,” the autobiography by Dr. Ben Carson, a recent presidential candidate and retired neurosurgeon.
Dr. Higa explained what he was doing, pointing out parts of the body as he operated. As his voice came over speakers in the hospital conference room, a camera highlighted digestive organs deep in the body. “I was surprised at how the heart still pumps when the person is cut open and being operated on,” said Charles Bailey, 11.
Dr. Higa, like Dr. Carson, came from humble beginnings. As the grandson of immigrants from Okinawa, he was the first in his family to go to college and chose one of the most challenging paths he could think of – medicine – he told students. Dr. Higa returned to his hometown of Fresno to make a difference. And like Dr. Carson, who became famous pioneering the separation of twins conjoined at the head, Dr. Higa is internationally known among his peers for pioneering the gastric bypass techniques most widely used today and for his expertise on bariatric revisions.
Gibson Elementary’s librarian, Mindy Franklin, has brought groups of boys for the past three years to watch Dr. Higa do surgery.  “I believe in cultivating strong men and I want these boys to have something to aspire to besides athletics,” said Franklin, who runs the book club for fifth and sixth-graders at the Fresno Unified school.
Being a surgeon is definitely something Wyatt Stephens, 11, is thinking about even with all the schooling it would take. He explained, “It takes four years of college and four years of medical school and then five years of residency and two more years of practicing.” His second career choice? “Maybe be a video gamer.”
As the Gibson students filed out, juniors and seniors from Clovis North High School in a health careers class took their place in the Fresno Heart & Surgical conference room. While the operating room was prepped for the next patient Dr. Higa grilled the students on their knowledge of anatomy and biology: “What’s the appendix do? What does the liver do? Who can tell me what the best kind of diet to eat is?”
As Dr. Higa headed back to the operating room to do a gastric bypass, he encouraged the students, “I don’t mind questions during the operation. Make sure you ask.” A clinical educator stood by with a microphone so the students could do just that. Dr. Higa often teaches to international surgeons as he’s operating; his explanations, as well as the view inside and outside the body is beamed via internet streaming across the globe.
Erin Kennedy reported this story. Reach her at