Spencer J. Melby, MD, is a Washington University cardiothoracic surgeon at Barnes-Jewish Hospital specializing in heart valve repair and replacement.
To answer the question of why do I like the heart, you need to first ask the question of what got me interested in medicine because years ago, even as far back as elementary school, I was interested in science, my parents were always very encouraging, my teachers were encouraging and I liked science but I also liked the idea of helping people, of doing something that provided a service that made people better and the obvious juncture of science and service is medicine. So as I went through college it became clear to me that I should do something in medicine, I wanted to become a physician. I spent time in hospitals and emergency departments but early when I was in medical school I was certain that I was not going to be a surgeon. In fact, because I was married, I had children, it was important to me to have a controllable lifestyle and a lot of surgeons are very busy all the time and I was concerned, frankly, that I wouldn’t have enough time for my family if I was a surgeon. So I took a surgical rotation early in medical school to get it out of the way. Of course, I fell in love with surgery in my surgical rotation and then later in medical school I did a rotation in cardiothoracic surgery and it was the most difficult rotation that I did. I would get up at 4 in the morning and come home at 10 at night, every night during that rotation but I would come home so happy and my wife said I think you found a profession. So, I found a profession, cardiothoracic surgery. It took a long time of training to get here but it’s really the pinnacle of taking science and taking medical knowledge and then applying it to patients and making a real difference and seeing them heal from a life-threatening problem, to coming out to be able to live many more years. It’s a very satisfying.
I do a lot of different types of heart surgery but the majority of surgery that I do involves valves of the heart, the aortic valve, the mitral valve and that’s the most common thing that I do. Including, what we call minimally invasive valve surgery or incisions that are very small or almost non-existent incisions to replace the valve. I also do bypass surgery, which is the most common surgery performed by a heart surgeon and I do some other things too. We do surgery for atrial fibrillation, here at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University in St. Louis, we have a rich tradition of surgery for atrial fibrillation and I’m involved in that. I do a fair number of surgical ablations, specifically for atrial fibrillation.
It’s funny. It’s actually not one particular thing in my practice that is the most interesting but it’s the opportunity I have to do many things. I do heart surgery and I love doing heart surgery, I love to replace the valve, do a bypass and fix somebody’s heart. But I also am involved in research and I have an active laboratory and we ask questions that can advance the field of medicine. And, what’s really exciting to me is the opportunity of working in the laboratory gives me to bring new information, better information, new findings to apply it to patients. So that when I am operating, patients can have a better outcome, can live longer, can live better, have fewer complications, so I’m in the unique position to actually not just do surgery and help one patient with a surgical intervention but I can help many patients when I ask questions, pertinent research questions, get good answers and apply it to a lot of patients. That to me is probably the most exciting part about what I do is I get to help people directly one-on-one and I also have the ability to potentially help thousands or maybe millions of people.