01 Mar 2019

by Chris Thornhill

Glancing through an open office door at an X-ray of a clearly broken humerus was one of my first insights into orthopaedics...

Finding this interesting (as it was one of the few x-rays I’d manage to vaguely interpret), I failed to run away before a surgeon’s voice shouted through the door “Are you a medical student? Present this x-ray to us!”. After stuttering out a vague reply, I was expecting the inevitable berating for my lack of X-ray knowledge. Instead, to my utmost surprise, I was welcomed into the office, taught how to properly go through an X-ray and encouraged to attend theatres later that week.

At medical school, it is fair to say there’s a stereotype associated with orthopaedic surgeons, including being unfriendly and unkind. This also seems to be perpetuated by others in the hospital, being enough to put off some medical students from venturing anywhere near the orthopaedic department. However, my experiences (and that of many fellow students) don’t seem to support this negative perception held by some.

The first surgery I saw as a medical student was a DHS. The surgeon took time to explain all the x-rays, teaching along the way and making sure I was involved with what was going on. His registrar also talked me through the whole procedure beforehand, and the whole team made me feel very welcome and included with the operation. I believe these first exposures we students get to a specialty are so vitally important, as a poor experience early on may deter someone with a potential interest for the rest of their career.

Many other orthopaedic surgeons have also been supportive. I remember one surgeon who stayed behind after finishing a long case at 10pm to write me a reference I needed, significantly delaying his already late finishing for the day. Others have been very helpful with research and CV building, whether this be including me in projects and papers or assisting with submissions to conferences – one junior even gave me a guided tour of Rome before our presentation! Learning about such things is daunting as research outside the curriculum is often overlooked at medical school, so being given encouragement and advice from doctors is hugely appreciated by students.

The most valuable experience for me as someone considering a career in orthopaedics has been scrubbing into operations. Seeing the passion and enjoyment surgeons have is inspiring, and this can be shared with students by letting them be involved and hands-on. From performing my first suture to getting my hands on the instruments during a Copeland shoulder implant, I found the buzz of being in theatres infectious. Given the huge amount of effort and dedication a career in surgery entails, I think it’s important for people to know they’ll enjoy what they’ll be doing for years to come (and that they don’t faint at the sight of a femoral nail...).

Overall, my experience of orthopaedic surgeons has fallen well outside of what I think is a wholly unfair stereotype. I have enjoyed my time in orthopaedics
immensely and hope I continue to do so, but the challenge is affording this opportunity to other students. With the current decline in applicants to T&O training posts and the negative perceptions held by many at medical school, I hope more people see an interesting fracture X-ray through an open door. 

First published in JTO Volume 7, Issue 1, March 2019.