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Published 5/1/2013
Maureen Leahy

Surgical Skills Program Sparks Students’ Interest in Orthopaedics

Collaborative program reaches out to high-performing middle schoolers

On a snowy Saturday morning this past February, when most kids their age were still asleep, 41 Chicago middle school students arrived at the AAOS Orthopaedic Learning Center (OLC) in Rosemont, Ill., eager to take part in an orthopaedic surgical skills program.

The field trip was a collaboration between the AAOS and High Jump—a tuition-free academic enrichment program for talented, low-income students. The participants were high-performing 6th graders with a proven interest in the sciences who were recruited from the entire Chicago Public School district population. The goal of the event was to spark their interest in a career in medicine, particularly orthopaedic surgery.

Raj Rao, MD, chair of the AAOS Diversity Advisory Board (DAB), and other volunteer orthopaedic surgeons led the half-day program. After Dr. Rao presented a brief overview of the musculoskeletal system and the conditions that orthopaedic surgeons treat, the students received tips on how to prepare for a career in orthopaedics and participated in small group discussions and hands-on skills exercises.

Students practice with real surgical instruments under the supervision of Raj Rao, MD, during the High Jump field trip to the Orthopaedic Learning Center.
Courtesy of Keith French Photography

Follow your own path
The path to becoming an orthopaedic surgeon can begin as early as middle school, according to Caroline M. Chebli, MD, DAB member-at large, of University of Washington/Northwest Hospital and Medical Center, Seattle. Middle school is the ideal time to develop good test-taking skills, which students will need throughout their education. In high school, she recommends that students take advanced classes and become involved in extracurricular and volunteer activities.

“When applying for college, keep your options open, apply early, and apply to a variety of schools—the same holds true for medical school,” she said. “Continue to do volunteer work in college and take advantage of summer research opportunities. During your residency, be prepared to decide on a specialty.”

Dr. Chebli explained that although the path to becoming an orthopaedic surgeon appears straightforward, that’s not always the case. For example, she deferred her medical school acceptance for a year to work in a research lab. She also transferred residency programs and, 8 months into the new program, was diagnosed with leukemia. After taking a 6-month break for treatment, Dr. Chebli completed her 3rd and 4th years of residency while undergoing chemotherapy. During that time, however, valuable research opportunities came her way that helped her decide on a specialty.

“Everyone’s path will be different,” stressed Dr. Chebli. “The important thing is to recognize the opportunities that come along the way.

“It takes a long time to become an orthopaedic surgeon, but the hard work that goes into it is very exciting and rewarding,” she continued. “Choose your own path, grab opportunities as they come, never give up, and you will make it!”

Be the best you can be
Just as everyone needs to follow their own path, it’s also important for students to be the best they can be through each stage of their lives, according to DAB member Erik C.B. King, MD, of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital, Chicago.

“You don’t always know what lies ahead,” he emphasized. “What you should do now is concentrate on being a great 6th grader, so you can then be a great high-school student, and so on. But in the back of your mind have a plan of what you want to be someday—like a doctor,” he said.

Despite his interest in science, especially biology and chemistry, as he was growing up, Dr. King had no idea that he would become an orthopaedic surgeon.

“My interest in medicine peaked when I realized one of my college professors was not only a scientist, but also a doctor,” he said. “But as with Dr. Chebli, there was a twist. After college, I wasn’t quite ready to go to medical school, so I worked for a couple of years instead.”

Once in medical school, Dr. King realized orthopaedics was a great way to help people feel better—which was his primary reason for becoming a doctor. “Not only that, I wanted to help young people. So I decided to become a pediatric orthopaedic surgeon.”

He added, “As you go through life and medicine, figure out what one thing you are really special at and work to become better at it. That’s what I did, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Hands-on learning
After the oral presentations, the students, High Jump faculty, and surgeons moved to the OLC. The students were divided into small groups and rotated among stations to learn about external and internal fixation, spine fixation, and arthroscopy techniques. All students also had a mini radiograph taken of their hand or foot, which they got to keep.

Drs. Rao, Chebli, and King, joined by Mark Gonzalez, MD, and Alfonso Mejia, MD, explained how different instruments such as plates, screws, drills, drill guides, rods, and arthroscopes are used in orthopaedic procedures and answered questions from the students. Under the orthopaedic surgeons’ guidance, the students then practiced using the instruments. For example, they tried catching kernels of corn using an arthroscopic simulator, drilled screws into plates, and attached screws to rods.

At the conclusion of the day’s events, Dr. Rao thanked the students for attending the program and complimented them on their participation. “My colleagues and I were very impressed with your knowledge and enthusiasm,” he said. “Give yourselves a hand, you should be very proud!”

Thank you!
The field trip also made a lasting impression on the students. By a show of hands, several students from the group indicated they wanted to become orthopaedic surgeons. To express their appreciation, they sent the faculty thank-you notes and artwork when they returned to the classroom.

“Thank you for teaching us new things about bones and how they can be repaired. By the end of the field trip, I was thinking about being an orthopaedic surgeon when I grow up,” wrote one student.

Another wrote: “Because of you, I am considering going to school to become an orthopaedic surgeon. Hopefully, I can persuade other people to be like me, too. Thanks for making this the best day of my life!”

Maureen Leahy is assistant managing editor of AAOS Now. She can be reached at leahy@aaos.org