The LSU College of Science is bustling with hundreds of budding physicians eager to master the MCAT, ace medical school admissions and gear up for the rigorous years ahead in medical school. A lucky five from our pre-med student community were given the opportunity of a lifetime - a month of shadowing some of the world’s leading doctors as part of the MD Anderson Cancer Treatment and Research Center Summer Externship for Undergraduate Students.
Last summer was the first year that the program was open to LSU students. Dr. Erich Sturgis, a MD Anderson physician and 1985 graduate of LSU’s biochemistry program, worked with Cynthia Peterson, dean of the LSU College of Science, to extend this opportunity to LSU’s up and coming doctors.
"This experience gives them a real appreciation for what academic medicine is like at a major center, a flavor of what training after medical school (residency and fellowship) would be like, an inside look at taking care of cancer patients and what a rewarding experience it can be," says Sturgis.
Over 50 high-achieving students at LSU applied for placement in the program. It was Harley Bordelon, James Briscoe, Nicole Dominique, Victoria Huynh and Madeline Shannon who were selected to embark on an experience that significantly impacted their views of modern-day healthcare, those in charge of administering care and the doctor-patient relationship. Read on to learn more about the MD Anderson Externship experience as told by senior microbiology and English literature major Nicole Dominique and senior biological sciences majors Harley Bordelon and Madeline Shannon.
College of Science: What drew you to the MD Anderson Externship experience?
Nicole: I applied to the MD Anderson Externship because I knew it would provide a great experience and would motivate me through filling out medical school applications. I liked the prospect of being in Houston since I have family in the area, and Houston has a large and prestigious medical complex. Also, I am applying to four Texas medical schools and thought it would be a good idea to be able to look into their medical system through this experience.
Harley: After attending the seminar hosted by Dr. Erich Sturgis and Dr. Eduardo Diaz from MD Anderson, I immediately became interested in the externship. I thought this experience would be an amazing opportunity to extern at one of the leading cancer institutes in the world. Their talk focused on academic medicine, which involves both research and teaching new residents. This was a form of medicine I did not know much about; however, I enjoy helping others learn. To combine the teaching aspect with medicine seemed a perfect fit for me.
Madeline: I have always been interested in oncology as a potential specialty in the future. I am a Tri Delta here at LSU and one of the things that attracted me to Tri Delta was that our philanthropic activities support St. Jude. I have toured St. Jude and seen how amazing it is, so the second I heard about the MD Anderson Externship I just knew I had to apply for this amazing opportunity.
College of Science: MD Anderson was ranked number one for cancer care in the U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Hospitals” survey. What was the environment like at MD Anderson?
Nicole: MD Anderson has an environment conducive to teaching and learning. Often when I would be in an operating room, college students, medical students and/or researchers would also be observing the surgery taking place in the room. The anesthesiologist who served as my mentor for the experience would walk me through the different techniques she would be performing. She would draw pictures and use different images or models to teach me about the procedure, and then she would later quiz me about my knowledge. Her instruction went beyond getting me to say the “right” answer, but to get me to think critically and to apply my knowledge based upon what she had taught me.
Harley: Simply put, I felt the compassion and involvement from the medical team in every patient we helped.
Madeline: Going into this externship I was very nervous since MDA is such a top-notch facility. I thought everyone was going to be very uptight and intense, but everyone I met was so kind and helpful. Everyone was always willing to explain anything I didn't understand and allow me to see and do as much as possible.
College of Science: MDA cares for over 120,000 patients each year and employs more than 20,000 people. The center is very large, having grown 50 percent within the last decade, and is extremely busy. What did you find challenging about the externship experience?
Nicole: Walking around MD Anderson and trying to find new places was difficult since the complex is so large, but there are so many people willing to help that it was not that hard after all. I also had to wake up for 4:45 a.m. to make it into work on time, but I was eager to be there on time to see the upcoming surgeries for the day.
Harley: Honestly, the most challenging aspect of the experience involved navigating the medical center campus. It is, by far, the largest campus I have visited.
Madeline: I think the most challenging thing about this experience was the hours. I had to set my alarm for 3:45 a.m. every morning so that I could get to the hospital early enough to participate in patient rounds with the medical students, residents and fellows, and then go to the team meeting where they explained to the nurse practitioners and physician assistants (who take care of the patients on the floor during the day) how the patients were doing, all before a 7:30 a.m. surgery. Most days I wouldn't get home until around 6:30 p.m. Another challenge was having to stand for eight hours without being able to scratch my nose or move a piece of hair out of my face because I was “scrubbed in” (haha).
College of Science: One of the goals of the externship was to give students first-hand experience with a variety of medical staff teams. Of these experiences, which did you enjoy most?
Nicole: Being paired with an anesthesiologist, I was able to interact with other anesthesiologists, nurse anesthetists, physician assistants, scrub technicians, radiologists, surgeons, nurses and medical students. All of the people I interacted with were very willing to help and teach, but I think I enjoyed interacting with the other anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists along with my mentor the most, and seeing the network they have at the hospital.
Harley: I rotated through the Orthopedic Oncology department for four weeks and witnessed the clinic setting in both orthopedic oncology and sarcoma centers, joined weekly morning conferences, followed residents attending to emergency and inpatient consults, and observed cases in the operating room. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to scrub into a total hip arthroplasty case and appreciate first-hand the skills and techniques the surgeon employed to return to this woman the ability most of us take for granted, walking. I also viewed an above knee amputation, an elbow replacement and a laminectomy (a surgical procedure that removes a portion of the vertebral bone called the lamina).
Madeline: During my time at MDA I was on the thoracic (chest) surgery unit. I got to see patients in the clinic when they were first coming to MDA to find out if they were able to have surgery. Then I was able to scrub into the surgeries, and even see the patients after their surgeries when they were recovering on the floor. The most exciting and interesting part was definitely the surgeries! I got to see some of the best surgeons from all over the world remove cancer and save lives. It was amazing!
College of Science: What were some of the most significant things you learned from the externship?
Nicole: In the month I was there, I learned about patient care and being honest and understanding of what the patient wants. In anesthesiology, there are procedures that lower the postoperative pain and the amount of narcotics injected during the surgery, but they come with risks. Many patients were not willing to take these risks with the prospect of increased pain after the surgery, so my mentor would understand this after presenting both sides and move on to give the patient their most comfortable experience. Also, with my mentor teaching me about the procedures and then quizzing me, I learned how to think critically when it comes to medicine. Each person has their own nuances, so I had to learn how to think in regards to that specific patient and not just based upon a situation I had encountered before.
Harley: Every case at MD Anderson is multidimensional. The physicians must develop treatment plans to not only fight cancer, but also to treat any effects produced by cancer, especially in our orthopedic patients. With that being said, teamwork is crucial and centered our weekly conferences. Different departments came together to discuss challenging cases and resolve a treatment plan most beneficial to the patient. I see how important teamwork is in accomplishing this goal.
Madeline: I think one of the best things this externship has taught me is about the kind of medical student, resident, fellow and physician I want to be in the future. Since I was expecting a much more intense environment going into the externship, I was pleasantly surprised when everyone was so kind and helpful and really interested in me and what I wanted to get out of the experience. It showed me that this is how I want to treat people when they come to me one day as a medical student or a resident or physician and want to learn more about medicine.
College of Science: Internship, externship and cooperative learning experiences can give students a greater understanding of the theories learned in class. How has the MDA externship experience impact your academic performance?
Nicole: With just two semesters left before I graduate, I believe that this experience has given me the motivation to do well in my final semesters so that I can graduate with a strong GPA.
Harley: The academic diversity in the orthopedic oncology department’s attending staff is profound and ranged from Ivy Leagues such as Harvard, Yale and Cornell to state schools such as University of Florida, MIT and Stanford. One of the physicians was even an astronaut for NASA. No matter their background, they all shared the same interest of improving the quality of life in their patients. I will continue to do my best academically and embrace the challenges on the road to becoming a physician.
Madeline: This experience definitely makes me only want to do the best that I can. It made me very excited for the future which makes me want to work as hard as I can to achieve my goals so that I can be the one saving lives!
College of Science: Through this externship, you had a chance to interact with some of the world’s top medical professionals. How has this experience impacted your career aspirations?
Nicole: My month at MD Anderson opened my eyes to medical specialties that I was not initially considering, but overall, it has reinforced to me that medicine is the field I want to enter after I graduate.
Harley: This experience showcased the interconnections of academic medicine: teaching and practice. It also provided new motivation to continue my journey. I hope to one day be in the position to foster a learning atmosphere to future residents and medical students, similar to the one at MD Anderson.
Madeline: It has intensified my interest in oncology! It has always been on my list of possible future specialties, but it’s definitely moved to the top of the list now!
College of Science: What has this experience taught you about yourself?
Nicole: This experience has taught me about some of my preferences, especially when I rotated to different departments at the hospital. I personally prefer being more active and moving between different rooms, so anesthesiology was a good match for me for the month.
Harley: Witnessing what these patients are going through and undertaking in their care, and realizing how much of a functional life they live after treatment, genuinely instills inspiration and motivation in the fact that if they can overcome these challenges, then we can overcome the challenges we face.
College of Science: What type of student would benefit from participating in the externship?
Nicole: I think that any student who is thinking about applying to medical school could benefit from this program. Dr. Sturgis, one of the program directors, said that it is aimed towards rising juniors who still have about a year left before they apply to medical school, but our externship had sophomores through seniors. We all benefited from the program at our respective positions: beginning to think about the MCAT, about to study for the MCAT, and in the middle of applying to medical schools. Overall, the externship gives students an opportunity to observe surgeries, learn from doctors, and move around the hospital with a medical team, so I believe that these experiences are beneficial for any student considering medicine.
Harley: I believe any student with a sincere interest in medicine and helping others would benefit from this experience. You are given a surprising amount of freedom here so you must be responsible enough to manage your time and take care of your responsibilities.
Madeline: Honestly any student interested in going into medicine would benefit from this. It may be a cancer center, but you learn so much about the world of medicine and the way an academic hospital works. This would be something that any pre-med student could learn a lot from regardless of what specialty they are thinking about going into.
College of Science: You were among the first at LSU to have this externship experience. What advice would you give to future externs from LSU?
Nicole: The most important piece of advice is definitely to be open-minded. I would advise a future extern to be willing to learn and challenge what he/she already thinks. When selecting the specialty that the future extern wants to rotate in for the month, I would advise that the individual selects a department that heavily interests them and involves the kind of work they would like to see over a course of a month.
Harley: My biggest advice would be to always give yourself enough time to be at certain places. It is very easy to get lost in a new setting. Also, never be afraid to ask a question. I was surprised at how much I learned through this experience.
Madeline: Start looking for an apartment or place to stay as soon as you get accepted! It is hard to find places to rent for only one month. Also, if you are on any of the surgery rotations don't spend a ton of time or money on business clothes because you only wear them coming in and out of the hospital! You change into scrubs pretty much every day you are there. And write down interesting experiences as they happen so that later you can talk about them in your medical school applications or write about them in your personal statement! You see so much in your month there that sometimes things will start to all run together if you don't keep track!