Violinist, world traveler has remarkable profession as well: ‘We stop hearts for a living’

May 15, 2023
Young woman with long brown hair is wearing a black jumpsuit and playing a violin on a bench outside.
Grayce Owens doesn't have as much time to play her violin as she did when she was in the Charleston Symphony Youth Orchestra, but she finds ways to squeeze in some practice. Photo by Sarah Pack

Grayce Owens is used to explaining her chosen profession. Most people have never heard of it. “It's always surprising when somebody says, ‘Oh, I know what that is,’” she said.


Owens is a perfusionist, graduating from the College of Health Professions at the Medical University South Carolina. “So the elevator spiel is we operate the heart-lung machine for open heart surgeries. If you want to be cheeky about it, you can say we stop hearts for a living.”


There are about 4,500 perfusionists in the United States. They specialize in running life support devices to support patients’ circulatory and respiratory systems. MUSC has the only perfusion training program in South Carolina. 


MUSC has a great reputation in the field,” Owens said. “Going out on rotations to clinical sites, I see I have big shoes to fill. The people who've gone before me have really made a good impression.”


A woman and man wearing white coats smile together standing in front of a building. 
Grayce Owens and Bob Groom, the American perfusionist who leads the training program in Kenya.Photo provided

Owens has made a good impression, too – and not just in her clinical rotations in South Carolina. “I got interested in the opportunity to go to Kenya at a perfusion conference that MUSC hosts every year,” she said.


At that conference, a speaker described his work as a perfusionist at the only hospital in sub-Saharan Africa with a perfusion training program. Owens got in touch with him a few months later and had a conversation that would temporarily take her from being a student to being a trainer.


“He had a Califia heart-lung machine simulator that someone had donated to him in Kenya. He just didn't know how to run it. That's the same simulator that our program at MUSC uses,” she said.


“My classmates and I had been in there 24/7 practicing on it for our final exams. So it worked out that I had this familiarity with the software, and they had a need. So I was able to go out there and help get their simulation training started.”


She spent a month in at a hospital in Bomet, Kenya. “Most of the people who work at that hospital are native Kenyans. The students that have graduated from that training program were working with me in the operating room, and so it was this really neat environment where I got to learn from them in the OR for their unique setup,” she said.


A man in blud scrubs, a mask and hair cover talks with a woman wearing the same things. They are seated in front of a medical device. 
Philip Koech, a perfusionist at Tenwek Hospital in Kenya, talks with Grayce Owens. Photo provided

“And then in the simulation lab, I was able to teach them the unique things about simulation. And so that was really cool. We got to have this partnership, and I left feeling like I learned just as much from them, if not more, than I shared with them.”


Owens hopes to return to Kenya. “The big thing for me right now after graduation is working to get certified, and so I'll have to take board exams and all of that in the fall. But I recently accepted a job at Duke University where I'm rotating right now. Duke is supportive of medical missions, and I am looking at the possibility of returning to Kenya in the future.”


Owens said she’s a Christian, a fact that guides her personal and professional lives. She was homeschooled through high school and graduated from the Christian liberal arts school New College Franklin before arriving at MUSC. 


She’s also a violinist. “In high school, I joined the Charleston Symphony Youth Orchestra for a while. And that was a lot of fun. So I'm definitely trying to keep up my skills, but it's hard with a clinical schedule.”


The feeling of being part of something bigger, an orchestra, while doing her best as an individual musician, has some similarities to her professional role in the operating room. “It's fascinating. I find that it's a really rewarding balance of being super clinical and doing your own specific tasks and working as a team. So that dynamic has been really fun.”


She said there may be skill-related parallels as well – like hand-eye coordination. “In perfusion, we use lot of tubing clamps to manipulate flow. And so that can be an art in itself. So I think having that hand-eye coordination and that left hand grip strength has probably served me well,” she said with a laugh.


Woman wearing a dress stands beside a sign that says Tenwek Hospital. We treat. Jesus heals. 
Grayce Owens spent a month at Tenwek Hospital in Bomet, Kenya. Photo provided

So have her relationships at MUSC. “The college and my instructors specifically, I feel like they've been such incredible mentors and poured into me their knowledge and their passion. And the fact that they were so supportive of me going on this mission trip to Kenya,” Owens said.


“They wrote reference letters. They worked with my schedule to get me out earlier so I could spend more time in Kenya. And just the way that they have fostered that community of perfusionists and caregivers and really pushed me to seek out those opportunities to keep serving. That's been really invaluable. I'd like to say thank you to them and encourage others to look for ways to serve their communities, wherever opportunity arises.”


If that opportunity involves perfusion, like it has for Owens, it can lead to an amazing career that, as she said, stops hearts. “It's never gotten routine. It's amazing just to watch the heart start back up again at the end of a case.”

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