Christopher Diehl ’13, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

Shortly after I arrived in Little Rock on Sunday evening, I met Dr. Petersen ’96 and the other Princetern outside the student housing dorms near the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS).  She drove us to a nearby restaurant where we discussed the schedule for the next few days over pizza.  During our conversation, we also talked about the path that Dr. Petersen took to become a doctor, and I was surprised to learn that she was a history major and that she spent a few years in consulting before going to medical school for neurosurgery.  After dinner, she drove us back to the dorms, where we prepared for an early start to the next morning.

Day 1

We started the day by meeting Dr. Petersen in the 2nd floor lobby at 6:45 am.  From there, we changed into scrubs and observed Dr. Petersen as she met with the patients on whom she would be operating that day, which was my first real introduction to how doctors and patients interact.  One of Dr. Petersen’s areas of expertise is deep brain stimulation, which involves implanting electrodes in certain areas of the brain to counteract things like tremors and seizures.  The first operation was relatively quick, and it involved changing the battery (located near the pectorals) that produces the electrical signals to block seizures in the patient.

The 2nd operation was probably one of the most interesting operations I saw on the entire trip, and it involved considerable prep work.  They were installing electrodes in the brain of a patient with Parkinson’s disease who had significant tremors in his left arm.  Because the target area of the brain was so small, they had to be very precise when implanting the electrode, so Dr. Petersen and her colleagues analyzed MRI results to determine the necessary measurements.  One of the things that stood out to me about this operation was that the patient was actually awake the entire time, even as holes were being drilled into his head.  Without a doubt, though, the best part about this experiment was that once the electrodes were installed and turned on for testing, the man’s tremors stopped immediately (he even said that he “felt finer than a frog’s hair”).  It really was amazing to see the transformation, as all the stiffness in his arm disappeared too, and his motions were smooth.

Before leaving, we also observed some of Dr. Petersen’s colleagues performing a spinal surgery which required inserting rods and screws in the vertebrae.  This procedure involved the use of some very high-tech equipment that used something like a GPS to allow the surgeons to see where the screws were being placed in the vertebral column on a TV screen.  It was really cool to see the integration of cutting edge technology into medical procedures to make the surgery less invasive.

Day 2

We were able to wake up a little later on the second day, but as soon as we arrived and changed into our scrubs, we were immediately whisked away to watch surgeries.  The first surgery I saw was prep work for a deep vein harvest, in which a vein in the patient’s thigh was isolated from all the other side veins.  In the actual harvest and subsequent surgeries, this vein would be used to repair/reconstruct the patient’s aorta.

After that surgery, we met back up with Dr. Petersen, who was performing spinal surgery on a patient who was also awake.  Dr. Petersen and her colleague were installing a device against the spinal cord to help reduce some the patient’s chronic pain through the use of electrical signals.  Throughout the procedure, Dr. Petersen was communicating with the patient both to make the patient feel comfortable with what was going on in her back and to assess whether there were any problems.

Fellow Princetern David, Dr. Petersen, and Chris

After Dr. Petersen’s surgery was complete, we moved to another OR to observe a heart valve replacement.  This was a very intensive procedure, so every space around the patient was filled, which prevented us from seeing much, but one of the anesthesiologists offered us the chance to observe some of the surgery from their position.  Although we didn’t see the whole procedure, which was supposed to take a fairly long time to complete, I still appreciated the opportunity to see an open heart surgery.  It’s not every day that you actually get to see a beating heart inside someone’s chest.

Later that night, Dr. Petersen took us out to dinner again, where we talked some more about the types of procedures she does.  We also got a chance to find out about her medical school experiences and what it’s like trying to balance work and school responsibilities with a social life.

Day 3

We had our earliest start yet at 5:45 the third morning when we went on rounds with the neurosurgery residents.  Because they only had a limited amount of time to meet with each patient, I saw that they were very efficient when it came to checking up on the conditions of their patients.  Furthermore, they were very helpful in explaining what was wrong with the patients and answering any questions that we had.

Most of the rest of the day was devoted to watching a brain tumor removal.  Before the surgery, I was surprised at how long it took to position the patient, but one of the surgeons explained that they needed to make sure that the patient wouldn’t lose circulation or pinch any nerves if held in the position for a long time.  It turns out that their prep work was certainly necessary, as this was the longest operation that we saw by far.  Procedures like this reminded me of the incredible patience that a surgeon must need.  I also realized that wearing comfortable shoes in the OR is a must, since standing around for long periods of time definitely causes some foot pain.  Because the surgery required was so precise, the surgeons had to use a sort of microscope to view their work, which was great because it also showed a picture of what they were seeing on a TV screen.  Other residents in the room were very helpful in explaining what parts of the brain we were seeing, and what the surgeon was doing.  There was a bit of trouble removing the tumor all at once, but after a long time of removing it bit by bit, it was finally gone.

Shortly after the surgery ended, we took the opportunity to shadow Dr. Petersen in her clinic at the end of the day.  Watching Dr. Petersen meet new patients and check up with post-op patients was again a very enlightening experience and taught me more about patient care, which is one of the most crucial aspects of being a good doctor. 

This Princeternship was an amazing experience, and I’m sure that many of the memories I have of it will stay with me as long as I live.  It was incredibly rewarding and gave me more insight into what the life of a surgeon is like, and for that, I would like to thank Dr. Petersen and all of her colleagues at UAMS.