David Thomas ’13, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

I arrived in Little Rock, Arkansas on Sunday the 19th of March, a little unsure of myself in a part of the country that I haven’t explored very much. I felt welcome from the first night on, though, after a warm dinner with fellow intern Chris Diehl and our Princeternship host, Dr. Erika Petersen ‘96(’96). We learned about the operations that Dr. Petersen had scheduled throughout the week and got a taste of her favorite pizza place in Arkansas. Once we had the week outlined, we started talking about some of our common experiences at Princeton and what we could look forward to in medical school.

We started the first day early for me at 6:45 am, but I soon became aware that this was a bit late for by hospital standards. Chris and I put on scrubs and met with Dr. Petersen’s patients for the day. Pretty soon I was observing my first surgery, and Dr. Petersen was careful to explain what she did and gave us a firsthand view of the procedure. I was thoroughly impressed with the expert knowledge of the body that Dr. Petersen displayed in replacing an electronic device that had been implanted in a patient. After finishing with the first patient she immediately got to work on a more complicated case which made full use of the cutting edge technology of deep brain stimulation. The patient whose surgery we observed had a noticeable alleviation of symptoms for a disease that I did not know could be treated so effectively, and I was really impressed to see it. We finished off the day by observing a spinal surgery that made use of another advanced technology to stay minimally invasive while making a dramatic intervention in the structure of the spine.

On the next day at the hospital, we got a broader survey of what surgeons at UAMS do. We started a bit later than the day before and split up between different surgical teams. Between me, Chris, and Arthur, another student observing surgeries for the week, we saw urological surgery, cardiothoracic surgery, and more neurosurgery. This packed day wrapped up with Dr. Petersen performing a spine surgery on an awake patient while explaining each step to Chris and me. We said goodbye to Dr. Petersen but hung around the surgery wing to observe an open heart surgery. Watching the heart beat inside a patient while the surgeons went to work was a really inspiring experience, especially having studied the heart so much without ever seeing one in action. Later on Dr. Petersen took Chris and me to dinner at a really impressive sushi restaurant, and we had a good chance to debrief a lot of our experiences and get a little more personal insight on the life story of a doctor.

On the Wednesday morning of our Princeternship Chris and I managed to wake up early enough to follow the residents for morning rounds. I’ve heard a lot about the intense lives of residents, so I was eager to see what things were like first hand. After finding our guide, a particularly helpful resident named Dr. Gandhi, we started visiting patients and listening to their symptoms and statuses. The residents on rounds displayed an impressive ability to take in and put together a stream of information about patients that needed diagnosis or treatment. Refreshingly, they all also seemed to enjoy their daily routine a lot, despite the intensity of life as a neurosurgery resident.

David, Dr. Petersen, and Chris

Following this, Chris and I observed the removal of a brain tumor by Dr. Day, the chair of neurosurgery at UAMS. We watched him perform the procedure while following the steps in a book describing the procedure that a resident had provided. Toward the end of the surgery we were surprised to learn that the author of this textbook was none other than Dr. Day himself! This was a really artful surgery, with a lot to appreciate how much the patient’s life would improve directly as a result. We ended the day with a visit to Dr. Petersen’s clinic, which really put more of a human face on the practices we had observed. Dr. Petersen seemed to really do her best to explain the technical side of complex procedures to patients, who in turn really appreciated the transparency and compassion she showed.

The last day of my Princeternship was in some ways the most exciting. I was lucky enough to see Dr. Petersen herself remove a very serious tumor from a patient in a very involved procedure which I was able to observe start to finish. Also, Dr. Petersen sent a sample of the tumor down to the hospital’s pathology unit, and I got a chance to see this other part of the hospital as well. The pathologist there classified it and explained what to look for and the severity of different types of brain tumor. Luckily for me, Dr. Petersen finished this very thorough tumor removal in time to grab a final bite to eat with me before I made my way to the airport to fly home.

We ate with Arthur and Dr. Gandhi and had a conversation that was enlightening for me about the role of research in medicine. Dr. Gandhi, an MD/PhD who worked on metabolism of neural cells during his PhD, had a lot of insight to share with me since I’m interested in pursuing an MD/PhD and I’m involved in metabolism research. Dr. Petersen also shared a few thought provoking stories about the history and future of neurosurgery research. I left that night with nothing but positive experiences from my Princeternship, for which I really have to thank Dr. Petersen for carefully setting up such an inspiring experience for undergrads. I would highly recommend this Princeternship to future students as an opportunity to get a first hand view of the practice of medicine and the positive things it can bring about.