Orthopaedic Surgeons - Strong as an Ox but half as Smart

how to learn human anatomy medical school medical student orthopaedic surgery Nov 16, 2020

‘Strong as an ox and half as smart’ was a classic line that was used by medical professionals to describe orthopaedic surgeons. When I went to medical school there was a generalised attitude that orthopaedic surgeons had to be very strong to operate on bones, but that they were not that clever. They were also not considered to be that sensitive to emotions and feelings, and that in some way talking about this was ‘weak’. Incidentally that does not mean that they didn't care, but just that it would be considered strange for them to share their own feelings.

 When I started training, the typical image of an orthopaedic surgeon would be a big, tall, well-built man, who went to the ‘correct school’, played rugby, talked loudly (often about themselves), laughed even louder, drank copious amounts of beer, and wore beige chinos and a blue blazer with brass buttons. Please be reassured that if you happen to fit this description, I do not have anything against you personally. Indeed I have many dear friends who would fit this description. But clearly being a woman of Indian origin who had no sporting talent at all, I did not match this image and for a while I was not sure if I would be allowed to pursue a career in orthopaedics for this reason alone.

But I never doubted that I would be able to do the job itself, and I really enjoyed the nature of the work. I loved the variety of working with different age groups, and on all different parts of the body. I enjoyed the unpredictability and excitement of trauma and the more considered long-term planning of managing the function of a joint for a lifetime.  I liked the idea of fixing broken things, but I also liked seeing relatively quick results. I liked being able to see the impact of doing an operation and making a life-changing result for an individual to transform their daily routines or achieve their personal or ‘world best’ in a physical or sporting endeavour. I loved the technical challenge of figuring out a solution to a mechanical problem in the body, and then putting it into action and seeing the result.

I decided to take the risk of rejection and ‘go for it’. And rejection did come, on many occasions. Rejection from job interviews, rejection for research, rejection for recognition as an equal and the one I found hardest, rejection for acceptance of who I was as a person. This would often leave me feeling sad or angry, but it made me more determined than ever to achieve my goal and to keep going. I was absolutely resolute in my intention to become an orthopaedic surgeon and did everything I could do achieve that goal. There were times when my colleagues were given jobs ahead of me, even though I was more qualified. Each time I came up against a brick wall, I would look around to see, what can I do now to be seen, to be heard, what can I do know to be given a chance to do this job?

I gathered degrees, I presented at conferences, I organised and ran conferences, I organised and ran teaching courses, I became totally blinkered in my resolve to be allowed to do orthopaedic surgery. And I eventually got a job at one of the top orthopaedic hospitals in the UK.

To balance this, I must stress that during my training I also came into contact with some remarkable people, who supported me, encouraged me and believed in me. I have made some very good friends and colleagues who I both admire and have learnt from, and continue to do so.

I have not written about this before, and to be honest I feel a bit anxious about sharing some of these things as I am not sure how it will be interpreted. So, let me be clear, I am not writing this now because I am thinking ‘poor me’ – not at all. I am not playing the ‘victim role’ (which I have in the past and believe it serves no purpose other than to make yourself feel more miserable), I have made plenty of mistakes, and there were situations in my career, which now looking back I could have played differently. I am certainly not writing this blog to be a big show-off and brag about what I have achieved, because to be honest with you, I still do not feel that I have achieved enough in my life and I think there is so much more that I have to offer and give to be of use to other people. In some ways I feel like I am only just starting.

I am writing this blog to share with you that if you want something, you CAN get there, you can succeed in your goals. It may take longer, and it may be harder for you than it is for others, but it is not impossible. Take time to really consider what it is that you want and then figure out a plan to get there, even if the odds are against it. Just keep stepping forwards and things will start to happen for you. It may not always go the way that you want or the way that you imagine it will. The journey may not be straight forwards, there may be hurdles and brick walls – and you may need to step sideways to go forward – but everything you do will add to your experience and teach you things that you may not appreciate at the time, but you will look back and be grateful for later.

 As I am entering a new phase in my life, I am learning and gathering new information about how the brain works, how I think, how other people think and the reasons for why we do the things that we do. I have now learnt that fundamental to anything you do in life, it is more important to figure out ‘WHY?’ Why do you want that goal? What is it that attracts to you to your goal? Are you being truly honest with yourself about your motives? Is it something you really want for yourself, or is it due to external pressures from your culture, your circle of friends or your family? Are you wanting something because you want it for it is, or for what you think it may give you? I will explore these topics in another blog.

I know that I was so blinkered in my goal that it never occurred to me to stop and think or write down ‘why?’. I think if I had, it would have made the tough times easier. I would have had more clarity in my daily life and have been less concerned about what people thought of me and not so desperate for their acceptance.

Today, I am glad that I persevered in my goal of becoming an orthopaedic surgeon. I love my job because I have the privilege of meeting patients who come from such varied backgrounds. I have a glimpse into their lives, and I am genuinely interested in their stories. I have the opportunity to hear about their goals and fears, and I am able to hear how the problem with their shoulder impacts their life. I am able to listen and learn from them. I am able to offer solutions (not always surgical) and take them on a journey towards their recovery. The most satisfying part of my job is at the final consultation when they look me in the eye and say thank you, as I know then, that I have made a difference.

So do not think about whether you fit the right image. Times change, attitudes change and cultural acceptance for what is permissible changes. The previous image of an orthopaedic surgeon is changing and we now come in all different shapes, sizes, colours and genders. There is more room for diversity to be cultivated and encouraged. Do not waste time thinking whether you are good enough, or what people think of you. Focus instead on what you do want and on what you have to offer and just go for it.