KINGSTON, Jamaica – When Fitzhugh Forrest completed his education at the Holmwood Technical High School in Manchester and made his way to Kingston in October 1974, little did he know that he was on a path to helping to save numerous lives as a cardiac perfusionist or cardiothoracic technician.

“When I left school… I actually started out as a youth service worker. I was part of the first set of youth service workers in the 70s that came to the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI). I was hoping to be here temporarily to move on to doing land surveying which I did in school,” he said.

On National Heroes Day, Monday (October 21), Forrest will be awarded the Badge of Honour for Meritorious Service, for contribution to the health sector.

He will be among the 215 outstanding Jamaicans, who will receive National Honours and Awards at King's House, St Andrew.

Forrest will be recognised for over four decades of service at the UHWI, providing one of the most vital skills needed during life-saving cardiac surgeries.

While his work would not have gone unrecognised by colleagues and patients, Forrest said that he was surprised at the national award.

“It was the farthest thing from my mind. I was a bit surprised when I heard but I am happy for it. I am happy for the recognition that the name 'perfusionist' is getting as not many people know of it,” he notes.

Cardiac perfusionists are highly skilled and trained health professionals, who operate the cardiopulmonary bypass machine during heart surgeries.

While the machine takes over the functions of the patient's heart and lungs to pump oxygenated blood through the body, the perfusionist monitors the metabolic and physiological conditions of the patient. This allows the surgeon to operate on an unbeating heart.

Forrest said that perfusionists are highly trained and experienced professionals.

“We had teams come down from overseas and train us and sometimes we went to their hospitals overseas to do training. That was part of my routine. I participated in a programme at the Washington Hospital Centre …I went up along with one of the doctors for some observation and training,” he said.

He also gained valuable experience working with various medical missions to Jamaica including the Chain of Hope charity and the Caribbean Heart Menders Association Incorporation.

Forrest said the UHWI conducts approximately 85 heart surgeries a year including those done at the Bustamante Hospital for Children.

He recalled, with pride, being part of the pioneering team that did the first open heart surgery at Bustamante.

“A team from (UHWI) went down to Bustamante; that was in the late 90s, and we assisted them for a number of years doing heart surgeries, sometimes five per week,” he said, adding that his job has been rewarding.

“Just looking at the result of the surgeries to see how well the patients recover has really been rewarding. I'm really happy in what I am doing and I love what I do. I have no regrets. The hours are long and can be challenging but I still enjoy it,” he said.

In addition to performing his role as a perfusionist at the UHWI, Forrest also operates the hospital's Blood Gas Laboratory in the Intensive Care Unit.

The lab conducts instant tests on blood samples to determine the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the sample and well as the pH level, which is a measure of acidity or alkalinity.

Forest, who is married and has two adult children, says “I wouldn't change this for anything. I would encourage other people, who want to do it, to just do it.”