Photographer Captures His Own Heart Surgery

A Northern Irish photographer documented his own heart surgery, while awake and on the table.

Charles McQuillan
Charles McQuillan
Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker

In 2009, photographer Charles McQuillan was diagnosed with coronary artery disease, and September of last year saw him going under the knife — with a surgery that required him to be awake while a tube was injected into his blood vessels, snaked up to his heart and then dye injected to help identify his heart problem. Once the problems had been spotted, devices could be sent up to help deal with them.

Faced with having to stay awake for the entire procedure, the 41-year old reached for his cameras. With the doctor's permission, he set up three cameras in the OR: two on tripods at either end of the bed, and one suspended from the ceiling looking down at him. With a remote control in hand, he was able to switch between the three cameras, and photograph the procedure as it happened. With another body on hand for him to personally record the aftermath, he captured a stunning set of images over the 90-minute procedure.

The images of the operation, which took place in September 2010 at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, have garnered McQuillan the BT Northern Ireland Press Photographer of the Year award. Talking to the Irish Times McQuillan spoke about not only being worried about the procedure, but about being the youngest man in the ward, and trying to deal with his fears of the procedure. He described being under the knife:

“I tried to busy my mind: the guy working the X-ray machine was into photography, and I kept talking with him about exposures and apertures, anything to keep from thinking. But for most of the time I just lay there watching the doctors’ faces, looking for clues in what they were saying, trying to interpret every nuance."

For the actual shooting rig, McQuillan had set up the in room bodies in advance, pre-focussing them based on where he knew the doctors would be and on his own body on the bed, and once the operation was complete, he took recording this wife and two sons, and how they reacted to what was a harrowing, though successful, procedure.

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