It's a typical day at the office for Rajan Chawla. He heads into surgery at Fletcher Allen Health Care at least once a month.
Reporter Gina Bullard: How do you feel? You're about to go into heart surgery.
Rajan Chawla: I'm excited. It's fun.
Only Chawla is not a surgeon. He actually has no medical training. His only instrument is a camera. He's the medical photographer for the University of Vermont's College of Medicine.
This day, he's capturing medical students learning from Surgeon Bruce Levitt. The open-heart surgery will last about five hours.
Chawla's photos are used for marketing and publications for the school and Fletcher Allen. The images also serve as a snapshot of medicine now-- a historical record the college will keep.
It's not always surgery; Chawla follows residents around as they visit patients, capturing the everyday.
"If I'm in there trying to document medical students learning I don't get that nervous. If a surgeon asks for something specific to be photographed that raises the bar a bit," Chawla said.
There are many challenges to shooting in the OR. It's small, packed with people all dressed alike and the doctors can't slow down to make sure Chawla gets his shot. He has to move fast-- like everyone around him.
"Just waiting for expression; even though you can barely see anybody, you can still see their eyes," Chawla said.
Chawla focuses on getting the picture but also has to be aware he can sometimes be in a life or death situation. He has to steer clear of any blue areas-- blue is sterile. A falling strap or lens could cause contamination and put the patient at risk.
"I'm trying to get a nicely composed photo right there and stay out of the way and paying attention to what step they're on," Chawla explained.
Although the environment is controlled and covered up it can still be stomach-turning for some-- not Chawla.
"You don't see much. There's a lot of activity. If you don't see the patient go in, out, you'd hardly know there was anybody in there," Chawla said.
Chawla has a degree in photojournalism from the Rochester Institute of Technology. He worked as a news photographer for over 20 years at the Burlington Free Press. Like the spontaneity of news, Chawla needs to be prepared for anything in the operating room. He made the switch to medical photography seven years ago.
Gina Bullard: Is it hard to make a picture creative when you're in this setting?
Rajan Chawla: If you look at it as overall it's overwhelming, but if you focus in...
Chawla has to gauge the mood; backing off during tense moments, sometimes leaving the operating room. He has earned the surgeon's trust. So when all is going well the doctor takes time to tell Chawla when good moments are coming up, like when med students get to put stitches in a heart for the first time; inviting him-- and us-- up for a closer look.
"Who gets to see this?! I mean, this is amazing," Chawla said.
Gina Bullard: So it seems like you're still in awe?
Rajan Chawla: Yeah, it's not all that normal to get that kind of explanation and view.
A photographer capturing incredible medical moments.
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