My family has had doctors and dentists in it for a couple of generations, and it was my Grandfather who got me into orthopaedics. He was an anaesthetist, who worked with Charnley, up in Wrightington, and he actually anaesthetised his first total hip replacement. Of course, I didn’t know (or understand) any of this when I was younger, but when I looked at him, I thought I saw the kind of person I wanted to be, and later on at medical school, I was lucky enough to get over to his hometown of Dublin, for my elective.
I first developed an interest in orthopaedics when I went to do some work experience with a friend’s mother, who happened to be an orthopaedic surgeon at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle. She was one of the first female orthopaedic surgeons in the country, and she was an inspiring paediatric surgeon. I saw her in theatre, in clinic and getting her hands dirty in the plaster room, and I thought ‘Yeah, this is what I want to do’, and it seemed to fit with my interest in sports as well.
Unfortunately, more experience of orthopaedics would come all too soon in my medical career, when I tore my ACL playing rugby, in the first couple of weeks at university in Cambridge. When it happened, I had no idea what I had done, but I was due to compete in Germany, just 2 weeks after the injury. I went to fracture clinic, and the orthopaedic surgeon who saw me told me my knee was too swollen and he couldn’t do anything, so I should come back in a few weeks. I was really disappointed; he barely gave me the time of day…a typical orthopod, some might say. But it didn’t put me off; I took one look at him and resolved that when I was in his position, I would never treat any patient like that. I was on crutches for the whole of the first term, and it was a nightmare. I didn’t really want to go back for mock exams after Christmas that year, but I stuck with it, and from that point, it did get easier.
After medical school, I initially had the disappointment, through national selection, of not following all my friends to London, but instead stayed around Cambridge for Foundation Years, which, in reality, was a godsend. I was placed in Hinchingbrooke, just a small DGH, but the most supportive environment I have ever been in. My FY2 job in T&O was amazing: the service ran with Consultants and FY2s only; no training registrars or other SHOs at all. The one-on-one time I had with my consultants was invaluable, and just kept me pushing for that orthopaedic job. Although I was initially told that I wouldn’t be awarded a core training job, a week later this was replaced by an offer up North, where I had a themed job in T&O. CT1 was tough, in a major trauma unit, and I became disillusioned. Don’t let anyone tell you being an SHO in surgery is a good job. It isn’t. You’re the medical monkey who is responsible at times, (at night mostly…), for a huge number of patients and admissions, with very little help. It’s not as if the registrar has it easy either, most of the time when they’re on over night, they’ll have done a normal day’s duties, and will be expected to work normally the next day too. I had some real low points, but all the way through everyone told me to stick with it and they were right. That time prepares you, in a way that you need, to be a registrar: the quick, accurate decision-making and the skills to handle trauma don’t come from a textbook, and without that experience, you just cannot be a safe surgeon.
So then came ST3 applications; I fell flat. My 16 months of trauma meant I had little elective knowledge, and I did not do myself justice on the day. In fact, I was ranked so low in national selection, that a good friend of mine pulled me to the side one day and warned me that it might be irrecoverable. Fortunately for me, he was wrong. I kept listening to everyone telling me it would work out, and I put my head down and worked hard. I love operating, but I took a year of teaching anatomy and doing research to buff my CV up (as much as I hated it), and emerged not only with offers of two numbers, but also an interest in education and psychology, that I pursue avidly. Now, I am an orthopaedic registrar, and I love it.
At the end of the day, if what you really want is to be is a surgeon, along the way there will be dark times, and your partners, friends and family might not understand what you’re doing to yourself. Believe me though, there is nothing quite like the feeling of putting knife to skin and knowing that you’ve put all those extra hours in and you’re going to give that patient everything you’ve got.