Ly saves patients as perfusionist

Kadence Ly, Staff Writer

As a perfusionist, Kaitlynn Ly assists in the bypass of the heart and lungs through the management of the heart-lung machine, also known as “the pump.” She works alongside the surgeon and the anesthesiologist to make critical care decisions during surgical operations.

With a determined mindset, Ly said she worked hard throughout her school years to be where she is today.
“When I was a senior at Westview, I thought that I was going to go to medical school,” she said. “I quickly realized that I didn’t want to go to medical [school] starting my freshman year of college. The idea of an additional 4-8+ years of schooling after college was dreadful to me and I knew I wasn’t cut out for that. I’m lucky that I realized that early on and found a career that was more suited for my life goals.”
With no idea of what to do in the future, Ly was motivated by her mom’s recommendation to consider the field of perfusion.
“To be honest, I didn’t really have a plan beyond going to college,” Ly said. “I knew that I wanted to graduate in four years if I could. Joining the Peace Corps after college was a lifelong goal for me, but beyond that, I didn’t really have an idea. Then my senior year, my mom was like, ‘we have a family friend who’s a cardiovascular perfusionist. I think you would like this field, you should shadow her.’”
Ly learned more about perfusion and found opportunities to shadow through networking and LinkedIn. Through this, Ly got the opportunity to shadow the Director of Cardiovascular Perfusion at UCLA for a day.
“Initially I had thought, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to like this job,’” Ly said. “Cuts gross me out, blood grosses me out and that’s mainly why I thought I didn’t want to be a doctor anymore. I realized I wasn’t really interested in health care like that, but at the same time, I was still very interested in patient care. When I shadowed her, I realized it actually isn’t that bad. I thought surgery would gross me out a lot but everything is very sterile and professional and it wasn’t at all like the movies made it out to be.”
In high school, Ly was focused on college despite not knowing about many colleges outside of SDSU and UCSD. She never went on college tours prior to the application process. This limited Ly when applying for colleges.
“If I had known more about other colleges, scholarship opportunities, and opportunities for students from low-income families, I would have applied to private schools/Ivy League schools using the Common App. As it was, I only applied to UC and state schools,” Ly said. “The first time I visited UC Berkeley was after I got in, during the welcome week.”
She says that because of Westview’s competitive nature, she was able to adjust to student life at Berkeley due to the similarly hard-working community.
“When I came to UC Berkeley, I was very used to the mindset of being part of a rigorous curriculum with fellow students and colleagues who studied hard, worked hard, and were competitive about grades,” Ly said. “I think a lot of people who ended up at Berkeley had been used to being the valedictorians of their high school and being ‘number one’ and ‘the smartest.’ A strong advantage of Westview and all the AP courses we get to take and how serious a lot of students here are is that I was not surprised to not be number one. I just knew I had to work hard and try my best and that good work ethic could take me far more than just relying on any natural, innate, smart talent I had.”
As a perfusionist-in-training, Ly went on eight week-long clinical experiences at different hospitals throughout the country. She rotated through four hospitals in the east coast. During each rotation, Ly got to know the surgical teams and learned the routines of each team. Ly got to refine her craft. A lot of it, she said, was a good clinical experience working with patients while under the supervision of a licensed perfusionist. Along with these rotations, Ly had to go to grad school and graduate with my Master’s degree in perfusion and pass board examinations. To pass board examinations,​​ Ly had taken 2 exams and had to participate in 40 surgeries after graduating from grad school. During grad school, Ly had to participate in at least 75 different surgeries to graduate with her Master’s degree.

Kaitlynn Ly performs a cardiopulmonary bypass using a Terumo System 1 heart-lung machine, Dec. 1. Ly moved to San Francisco in May to work as a perfusionist at Golden Gate Perfusion. Photo courtesy of Kaitlynn Ly

“I struggled a lot in my rotations, just traveling from place to place,” Ly said. “At all the academic institutions I’ve practiced at, the people really expect a lot from you, in the sense that they expect you to look and act the part of being very serious and studious.”
Ly experienced critical feedback towards her own self-expression. She was told by an old-fashioned teacher that wearing her sparkly eyeshadow was unprofessional in the operating room and that she would never be taken seriously. Working and living in San Francisco now, she continues to believe otherwise.
“In the California Bay Area, professionals all have the ideology of judging someone on the quality of their work rather than judging someone on their appearance, and I believe modern teams do not care to judge someone based on their style choices, but rather the quality of their work,” Ly said. “One of my favorite anesthesiologists that I work with loves coming to work with hot pink nail polish! Seeing their nails always brightens my day.”
Despite her difficulties with self-expression, Ly enjoys her job and the role she has. She loves that her job allows her to make a direct impact on the care for a patient and that she plays a significant part in patient care outcomes.
“I am very lucky to be a part of a very smart and supportive team. I also really enjoy living in the Bay Area and feel grateful to have found a job in SF,” Ly said.