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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 November 2007, 07:34 GMT
Lights, camera, scalpel action
Rebecca Morelle
Science reporter, BBC News

Heart surgery

In a packed-out auditorium, the audience waited with anticipation for the "show" to begin.

But this wasn't a typical night's entertainment - they were there to watch live heart surgery being performed.

With the help of cameras and a satellite link, surgeon Francis Wells was able to open up open heart surgery to more than 200 members of the public.

"I do not think that the human body should be the province of only specialists," said the heart surgeon from Papworth Hospital NHS Trust in Cambridge.

It is a little bit of health education through an artistic view of the beauteous wonder of the human body
Francis Wells

As Mr Wells and his team reconstructed a patient's heart valve in a hospital operating theatre, miles away in London the audience at the Wellcome Collection watched almost every stage of the procedure in extraordinary detail.

And from the first incision, to the delicate stitching to repair the faulty valve and the dramatic restarting of the heart, Mr Wells talked the spectators through the detailed operation, answering questions along the way.

Heart volunteers

"Everybody has their own body and they should know as much about it as they can or as they want to. I think that is a basic right," Mr Wells told the BBC News website, explaining why he had decided to unveil the mysteries of the human heart in such a way.

"And the more you know about your body - the beauty of it, the delicacy of it and the sheer wonderment of the way it works - the more likely you are to look after it."

The heart event sold in 24 hours of being announced.

Mr Wells said that he had had little trouble finding a patient who was willing to share such a close-up look at the inside of their body with so many people.

"People are very generous providing they know why you do it, they trust you and they know you will look after them," the surgeon explained.

"And it is their right to say no right up to the moment that they go to sleep. And when you put it like that, they are usually very happy to help."

In fact, performing open heart surgery with a video link was commonplace in hospitals, he added.

There is obviously a huge appetite for this
Ken Arnold, Wellcome Collection

"I do a lot of teaching and because in an operating theatre you cannot have 20-30 surgeons gathering around, I run video-based courses," Mr Wells said. "So I commonly have surgeons in a lecture theatre in another part of the hospital and then I do what I normally do and I have myself 'miked up' so they can ask me questions."

Whoever the audience is, one thing is key, said Mr Wells.

"It is a matter of making sure in everybody's minds that the most important person in the room is the patient. Nothing else matters."

Anatomical viewings

"There is obviously a huge appetite for this," said Ken Arnold, head of public events at the Wellcome Collection, who said the event sold out within 24 hours of being announced.

"In some ways, it is all about giving people access to parts of medicine that they don't usually come across.

"People learn something about surgery, but they also have an incredibly strong emotional experience."

Francis Wells added that he was not surprised that the event proved so popular.

"In the renaissance, the enlightenment, anatomical demonstrations were common fare, and in the 18th and 19th Centuries, surgery was done in a way that you could go and watch," he explained.

"So in the history of man, there is nothing new in this.

"It is a little bit of health education through an artistic view of the beauteous wonder of the human body."

Woman sees own heart on display
04 Sep 07 |  Health
Papworth halts heart transplants
02 Nov 07 |  Cambridgeshire

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