HIGIO – Sara Shelton – “I Wanted to be a Teacher”

It’s difficult to remember a defining moment when I decided I wanted to be an Orthopod. In fact, throughout my school years, I was adamant I wanted to be an English teacher. My A-levels weren’t exactly geared for medicine, with English, Home Economics, Chemistry and Biology. However in my final school year, despite discouraging advice from my parents and mentors, I applied for medicine.


It became quite clear to me, early on, that I was destined for a career in a practical speciality, probably due to my impatient nature and the need to see results quickly (probably a good job I decided against teaching!)


I decided that I was going to pursue surgery and that doing a BMSc in Anatomy and Forensic anthropology would probably be a good move. During this year, I was taught by an eccentric American anatomy professor who had the most fantastic way of describing anatomy. I got hands-on cadaveric experience at dissection, taught by surgeons, and through forensic anthropology learnt about trauma, disaster surgery, skeletal pathology and non-accidental injuries.


By this point I was fairly certain that orthopaedics was the right surgical speciality for me, but I wanted to be sure. As a result, I undertook a surgical medical student elective in rural Zambia.  This was the first chance I got to feel like a real doctor, performing manipulations of fractures, minor general surgical procedures, management of polytrauma patients and I even delivered my first baby!


In my final year of medical school, we were allowed to undertake student selected components. I didn’t like the look of any of the ones offered by the medical school and sought opportunities to create my own. As a result I independently arranged an exchange programme and spent a month in Kathmandu, studying musculoskeletal radiology.


After graduation, I arranged a 1-month placement during the summer holidays in Malawi at the Beit Cure Paediatric Orthopaedic Hospital and Queens Trauma Centre in Blantyre. This was a fantastic placement, that secured my desire to pursue orthopaedics. I worked with Professor Mkandwire, who, at the time, was the only Malawian orthopaedic surgeon in the entire country. He performed every type of operation you could imagine including life changing thoracotomies and spinal surgery for TB, in a challenging and austere environment.


I started my Foundation training in Scotland and I chose my jobs around surgical specialities, doing orthopaedics, general surgery, obstetrics and gynaecology, rheumatology, A &E and geriatric rehab.


Again, I sought to make the most of my study leave and independently arranged taster weeks at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, Stanmore, where I saw incredible limb salvage surgeries, including rotationoplasty and total femur replacements. I also arranged taster weeks in Queens Hospital, Birmingham, with Professor Porter, where I had the opportunity to assist with military polytrauma casualties arriving back from Camp Bastion.


I later received my Core Surgical number in Mersey Deanery. I was fortunate to negotiate placements in paediatrics orthopaedics, neurosurgical spine, trauma and limb reconstruction.  Here, I had the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s leaders in limb reconstruction and open fractures.


Along my path I have met many influential and inspiring orthopaedic surgeons who helped make my decision easy. However, I believe I ended up in orthopaedics by trying everything available and creating my own opportunities for new experiences. Going into a surgical career demands dedication, hard work and perseverance.


There will undoubtedly be times when you wonder whether you made the right decision. However if I were given the choice again, I would still, without doubt, choose orthopaedics.

My Advice

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for opportunities
  • Use your initiative and create your own opportunities
  • Try all the surgical specialities you can – it will help you confirm your decision and will make you a better surgeon in the long run
  • Find a mentor