Program inspires women to become surgeons

August 10, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Women have made deep inroads in the medical profession, but there are still areas where they're underrepresented.

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A unique program sponsored by UCSF and San Francisco General Hospital hopes to change that. It's called the Perry Program, and its goal is to interest young women in one of the most physically demanding types of surgery.

If pouring sand in a bucket seems like an odd way to get young women interested in orthopedic surgery, just wait for the payoff.

It helps to know that the bolt that snapped in the stress test is the same kind a surgeon might use to put your leg back together.

Bioengineer Jenni Buckley runs the shop at San Francisco General Hospital.

"So this lab is all about testing orthopedic products. Figuring out what works what doesn't and making recommendations to surgeons about what they should be using," said Buckley, PhD.

And here a class of college and high-school students, all women, will get their hands on the kinds of tools you'd normally see in a machine shop.

"If they want to use the drill press they can use the drill press, if they want to learn how to put in screws we're going to teach them to do that," said Buckley, PhD.

And upstairs at SF General's new orthopedic trauma institute - the drilling gets a little closer to the bone.

There, UCSF surgeon Lisa Lattanza is giving the students an introduction to the applied side of orthopedic surgery -- how those screws and plates actually go in.

"The reason we decided to bring these women into the lab now, is that women are very underrepresented in orthopedic surgery. Only about three to four percent of practicing orthopedic surgeons are women, and only 10 percent of the residents are women," said Dr. Lattanza.

And from their Rosie the Riveter t-shirts to their determined look on their faces, it's evident that the physical challenges of orthopedics aren't scaring anyone away.

Jan-Nicole Tovera and Kim Elder are high school students from Milpitas and Lafayette.

"So far I think it's very exciting because drills are not everyday tools that we get to play around. They are not toys obviously," said Tovera.

"It becomes even more interesting when you think of using them to help a real person," said Elder.

The program will ultimately take these young women into an operating room at UCSF, where' they'll watch surgeons working with the real thing.

While there are no statistics yet, organizers believe it will ultimately increase the number of women studying orthopedic surgery.

"Our theory is that it's really about exposure. If there aren't a lot of women in the profession then you may not have a mentor out there you can look to who says, women are in this profession I can do this too," said Dr. Lattanza.

A quick note on the importance of mentoring -- Dr. Lattanza who you just met says she was encouraged to enter surgical training by a woman named Jaqueline Perry, the first female orthopedic surgeon graduated by UCSF.

The Perry Program is now named in her honor.

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