A perfusionist is a skilled, allied health professional, trained and educated specifically as a member of an open-heart, surgical team responsible for the selection, setup, and operation of a mechanical device commonly referred to as the heart-lung machine. During many types of open heart surgery, the patient’s heart is stopped so that it is easier for the surgeon to work on. The patient’s blood is diverted away from the heart and lungs into a heart-lung machine. The heart-lung machine takes blood out of the body, oxygenates the blood and then returns the blood to the patient. In effect, the machine assumes the function of both the heart and the lungs. The perfusionist is responsible for operating the machine during surgery, monitoring the altered circulatory process closely, taking appropriate corrective action when abnormal situations arise and keeping both the surgeon and the anesthesiologist fully informed.
In addition to the operation of the heart-lung machine during surgery, perfusionists often function in supportive roles for other medical specialties in operating mechanical devices to assist in the conservation of blood and blood products during surgery, and provide extended, long-term support of the patient’s circulation outside of the operating room environment. The exact duties and responsibilities of a perfusionist are often dependent upon the particular institution where an individual works.