Article from D magazine

By Roberto Villalobos Viato – 

Note: This article was originally published in Spanish. It has been translated into English below. The Spanish version can be viewed here.

Doctor Sergio Alejandro Carrillo is certified to perform pediatric open heart surgeries in the United States. Pediatric open heart surgery is a task that only a few doctors in the world can perform. The risks are many and the education is long. On average, a typical pediatric heart surgeon trains for another ten to fifteen years before reaching that level of expertise.

As a native of Guatemala, Dr. Carrillo is only the second Guatemalan that the American Board of Thoracic Surgery has certified to perform such operations in the United States. The first was the distinguished pediatric heart surgeon Aldo Castaneda, MD, with Dr. Carrillo’s certification coming nearly fifty years later. In fact, this sub-specialized group is extremely small, with only 170 certified to do so in the United States and Canada.

Sergio Alejandro Carrillo, MD operates at Sunrise Children’s Hospital in Las Vegas, Nevada and is part of the Children’s Heart Center of Nevada, which is the only practice of it’s kind in the entire state. One of his dreams, as expressed via Skype for this interview, is to save children’s lives and to help his compatriots who need heart surgery.

What would you tell a person who wants to become a doctor?

“In this career you have to sacrifice many things, including family time, fun or holiday. You have to be really committed and dedicated to your patients. In addition, you must always keep studying and stay up to date on the latest technology.”

Why did you decide to be a doctor?

“I think there is still a recording somewhere of me telling my grandmother that I wanted to be a doctor to cure her hands of arthritis. I remember her being in pain and I wanted to help her. As I grew up, it was seeing my father, who is also a surgeon, come home from work tired but very happy to have helped people. That is what solidified my desire to take on this journey.”

Your specialty is Thoracic Surgery. What is that exactly?

“It is the surgical treatment of any pathology or disease that is localized in the chest. It is divided into three subspecialties. Non-cardiovascular thoracic surgery, which involves lungs, chest wall and esophagus. Acquired cardiovascular surgery, which is adult cardiac surgery for chronic diseases such as coronary artery disease or valvular disease. Congenital cardiovascular surgery, which involves surgery in neonates, children, teenagers, and adults with heart defects from birth.”

Why did you chose this field?

“I was interested in cardiac surgery since I was in Medical School at the University of San Carlos in my native country of Guatemala. I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to be mentored and learned from one of the foremost congenital heart surgeons of the 20th century Dr. Aldo Castaneda, who is also from Guatemala. This early career exposure really made me want to pursue that dream.”

Why are there so few doctors that choose this specialty?

“I believe, it is mostly because it is a complex and long road. After you graduate medical school, you must study and train for another 10 to 15 years under supervision. It isn’t until then that you can transition to operating independently.”

Congenital heart surgery indicates you perform surgery on children born with birth defects. Can you explain why these children are born with such defects?

“Certain types of birth defects have been associated with genetic diseases but most have not yet been able to be explained. They may be environmental or hereditary factors but there isn’t anything conclusive.”

How many operations have you been involved with?

“More than one thousand.”

Which types of birth defects are the most severe?

“There are many different diseases, and their names are technical, but one of the most common is called transposition of the great vessels. It is a congenital heart defect in which the aorta and pulmonary artery, which are the two major vessels that carry blood away from the heart, are reversed. This requires an arterial switch operation to fix it. Another common diagnosis is called Tetralogy of Fallot which is characterized by the presence of four heart abnormalities at once.”

How long does it usually take for a patient to recover?

“Recovery time truly depend on the disease pathology and the operation performed but it usually ranges from one to four weeks. The smaller the child, the longer it takes to recover.”

Can these children expect a normal life afterwards?

“Yes for the simpler type of diseases. For the more complex types, children may require multiple surgeries which may impact their life expectancy”

How much does an operation cost?

“This question is difficult to answer because it depends on the type of surgery they need. But an average surgery costs between $40,000 and $60,000.”

What about the patients that cannot afford that?

“In the United States all children with birth defects are insured and covered. In third world countries, families usually have to pay out of pocket. Most of the time, however, they are covered by independent entities, such as the Aldo Castenada Foundation in Guatemala or government subsidies.”

Do you plan to perform these kind of operations in Guatemala?

“Yes, absolutely! One of my goals is to bring these services to the Guatemalan children.”

What do you think about the level of training of the pediatric cardiologists in Guatemala?

“They are very capable in both diagnosis and management of congenital heart disease. Many of them have trained with the Aldo Castenada Foundation and abroad so I think they have valuable experience.”

On another topic, do you think doctors, in general, have become dehumanized?

“Yes, I believe so. I think it’s a global trend but happens more in third world countries where economic compensation for these professionals is not adequate.”

Are colleges and universities doing anything about it?

“Yes, they have certain plans in place. At the end of the day, we are dealing with the health of others which is what doctors pledge to do in the beginning.”

What are some tips for people to take care of their cardiovascular health?

“Eating healthy and exercising regularly; sounds trite but is true. In addition, you should minimizing other risk factors such as smoking.”

How often should people get a physical?

“If someone is having symptoms, beyond the recommended yearly routine assessment, they should seek out a specialist.”

At the beginning of our conversation, you mentioned doctors must sacrifice many things, such as personal time. Do you have any hobbies?

“I have practiced tennis and martial arts growing up. Two years ago I got into the world of triathlon. I have even raced a couple Ironman races.

As a family man, how do you find time to balance all of that in your life?

(chuckles) My wife is a triathlete herself so we train together. At the end of the day, when I’m not performing surgery or exercising, I spend the rest of my free time with my wife and our baby girl.


Sergio Alejandro Carrillo (Melendez) was born in Guatemala City, Guatemala on August 15th, 1977. He is a member of the Children’s Heart Center of Nevada and performs surgeries at Sunrise Children’s Hospital in Las Vegas, Nevada. He graduated from Medical School at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala. He completed two years of residency at the General San Juan de Dios Hospital at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami, Florida and three years at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky. He went on to complete a Cardiothoracic Surgery Fellowship at the Ohio State University Medical Center. He then went back to Guatemala to perform congenital heart surgery with the Aldo Castenada Foundation through the Cardiovascular Surgery Unit of Guatemala. He then adopted his expertise and sharpened his skills in congenital heart surgery at Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital under the world-renowned Frank Hanley, MD. He has multiple publications, is a member of several medical associations and groups in the United States and Guatemala, and will be a professor of medicine at the University of Nevada – Las Vegas School of Medicine.