Cabrini High senior practiced surgical skills at Stanford

By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald

Abigail Markey’s resolve to become a cardiothoracic surgeon has been bolstered throughout her 17 years of life.

When Markey displayed an early knack for building model airplanes from the tiniest of components, her grandfather commended her steady and exacting “surgeon’s hands.”

As the daughter of two cardiovascular sonographers, Markey had no choice but to be immersed in the intricacies of human anatomy. Where most families would discuss sports or current events around the dinner table, the Markeys would rhapsodize about muscles, bones and the circulatory system.

“I have a photo of me when I was 7 years old hugging a skull with an anatomy textbook open – and I’m so ecstatic,” chuckled Markey, a Cabrini High senior who recently received her biggest boost to date on her planned occupation: completing a prestigious summer internship in cardiothoracic surgical skills at Stanford University’s school of medicine.

“I’ve just always been fascinated by medicine,” said Markey, a graduate of St. Benilde Elementary and a parishioner of the Metairie parish. “Nothing is as intellectually stimulating as medicine because it’s always changing, and it’s always going to keep me interested.”

Abigail Markey, pictured earlier this summer, dissects a porcine heart during a cardiothoracic surgical skills internship at Stanford University’s medical school.

Familiar heart procedure

The two-week Stanford internship, which accepted only 120 high school and pre-med students from around the world, provided hands-on practice in surgical skills such as knot-tying, instrument handling, heart dissection, suturing, coronary artery bypass grafting, aortic valve suturing and valve replacement.
Porcine organs and tissues were used as stand-ins for human body parts.

Markey’s favorite surgery to perform – coronary artery bypass grafting (removing a diseased portion of the coronary artery and replacing it with a healthy arterial segment taken from another part of the body) – hit close to home: the same procedure was used to save the life of her father when he underwent quadruple bypass surgery last October.
Coincidentally, Markey performed her “pretend” bypass on the same part of the heart that was blocked in her father’s real-life case: the left anterior descending artery (LAD), also known as “the widow-maker.”

“He had a quadruple (bypass) and I only did half of a single, yet it was still very difficult,” Markey said. “We think about surgery as this glamorous field where you make lots of money, but you don’t actually consider how difficult it is to stand up for three hours and make very small sutures. The precision that it requires is so intense! If you space sutures out too much then there’s a leak and your patient dies.”

Accidentally “back-walling” a vessel – the medical term for nicking a vessel’s far wall – is another common surgical risk, Markey learned.

“The vessels are very, very small, so if you were to incise too far in, (blood) would leak out the other side,” she said.

Abigail said the most difficult procedure of the two-week Stanford surgical internship was suturing a mechanical valve into a porcine heart.

Tedious, rewarding work

The Stanford interns worked in pairs, alternating between the roles of surgeon and surgeon’s assistant. Markey said her most difficult procedure was the aortic valve replacement – a four-hour ordeal that had her suturing a mechanical valve into a small box that mimicked a real body cavity.

“First you have to cut off part of the aorta so you can open it up and put in your retraction stitches – so you can see in – and then you have to cut out the pre-existing valve that’s malfunctioning, and also cut out some of the muscle that contracts the valve,” she explained.

But that’s just for starters. Arranging the pledgets – swatches of material that cushion the valve when it is “parachuted” into place – called on all her fine motor skills and powers of concentration, she said.

“You have to get a really crucial angle in order to make the pledgets all align perfectly,” Markey said.

Sings opera in spare time

Each session of surgical skills practice was followed by lectures from prominent cardiothoracic surgeons, transplant surgeons and medical students. One tip Markey picked up from the latter group was that one need not attend a nationally revered college to get an excellent education. Markey is leaning toward attending LSU for her pre-med studies.

“I know a lot of students going into undergrad don’t know what they want to pursue as a profession, but for me, it’s not just an idea – cardiothoracic surgery is what I know I’m going to do,” she said. “I don’t care if it takes 16 years to become a cardiothoracic surgeon. It’s what want!”

When she’s not attending to her senior coursework, Markey serves as Cabrini’s National Honor Society president and on Mu Alpha Theta and Excalibur, her high school’s science honor society. Markey also has received training as a classical opera singer since age 10 and lends her soprano voice to dramas produced by Archbishop Rummel’s theater group, The Genesian Players.

Although Markey’s biggest “drama” was her father’s medical scare last fall, she said the experience only made her stronger and her future clearer.

“I really struggled in my faith to accept why God would do this. Why would he do something to my dad in this way? But I figured it out,” Markey said. “God was teaching me what I am meant to do in my life. He told me my calling (to medicine) through it.”

“There’s never been another experience that’s brought me closer to God than learning what I wanted to do with my life,” she added. “It brought me closer to God; it brought me closer to my faith; it brought me closer to myself. I want to be that person (a surgeon) who gives someone else a second chance!”

Beth Donze can be reached at

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