SHOULD THIS KID BE PRACTICING SURGERY? by Spencer Slovic

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Don’t worry, Cameron Slovic wasn’t actually doing the surgery in this photo. He and I were on a surgical mission with our dad and a team of doctors in a rural clinic in Kenya over spring break. Cameron and I did small things that helped the real surgeons- cutting sutures and holding retractors, mostly. The surgeons joked that they hadn’t done what Cameron and I got to do- scrub in and actually aid hands-on in surgery- until they were third-year medical students, or residents, even. The trip was a great experience for Cameron and I in learning more about surgery, and as a team we did over 50 surgical cases without a single report of infection, all successes.

That Cameron and I, teenagers, were able to do in a poorer, rural country what we would have needed years of training to do in the United States raises an important ethical question. When people go to other countries for a week or two to practice medicine (also known as “medical voluntourism”), do they need to have the same qualifications and standards as a doctor would need in the United States? Our intentions were good, we were welcomed enthusiastically, and we did no harm, but should we have been held to the same standards as we would be in the US (in this case, we would have only been able to stand and watch the surgeries- not participate)?

The organization we worked with sends a group to the clinic in Migori, Kenya, every two weeks, and keeps a doctor and team of workers on staff there at all times- if there had been an infection or complication from a surgery, the next medical team would be there soon enough to take care of it. On the eight-hour car ride back to Nairobi some of the doctors were talking about how well-organized the whole trip was, and discussing some of the problems there would be with more casual medical voluntourism, where a team would be in and out of a poor area without any follow-up, just a one time thing. What do you think about Cameron and I playing a role in the OR, and the whole concept of medical missions in the first place? Comment below.

4 thoughts on “SHOULD THIS KID BE PRACTICING SURGERY? by Spencer Slovic

  1. I think it’s amazing you guys got such an opportunity. Is your dad a surgeon? if not, how did he arrange for you guys to assist in surgery?.

    This was teenage dream of mine that never into fruition, unfortunately.

  2. I’m a Grade 10 student. I too was part of a surgical trip. My dad is an orthopedic surgeon. My mom, an OR tech. They are part of a team that sends a team of people to Haiti to treat people with mobility issues. Last year, they sent their 3rd annual mission. Being an aspiring orthopedic surgeon myself, my dad offered me the was gave the opportunity to not only join the medical trip, but to be the surgical assistant. I immediately accepted. He said this is the kind of experience that he would have loved to have when he was my age. Once we arrived to Haiti and met with the patients, what we witnessed was heartbreaking to say the least. It was such a tragedy seeing these people going through so much. Many had people had trouble moving a limp; others were in significant amount of pain for years. But this is exactly why we came to Haiti: to help them get better.

    Day 2 of the mission was the beginning of surgeries. I was about to witness what my dad does for a living. As I was cleaning up my hands, I came to a realization: what I was about to experience would either cement my love for medicine or shatter my dreams into pieces. After everyone scrubbed in, I was no longer treated as a 14 year old, but as an actual member of the team. My dad then proceeded with the first surgery : a total hip replacement. Quite a graphic surgical procedure. Through the whole thing, I experienced dust of bones blood flying directly on my face shield, the distracting noise of the hammer and power tools, the electric bonesaw cuttiing off pieces of bones like a butterknife, blood all over my gloves…It was admittedly unsettling at first. Not to mention the high temperature of the room. My problems being totally irrelevant when compared to the patient’s, I quickly decided not to be bothered by any of these things, and actually started loving them. By the end of the week, we performed knee replacements, a triceps repair, double knee replacements, and many more surgeries…I was allowed to retract bones, put on a clamp, cut sutures and hold limbs as tightly as I could. I also got to be the OR tech for a surgery. We did a total of 22 procedures. It was an experience that was so memorable and rewarding that it’s difficult to put it into words. I got to be directly part of the improvement of the health of the patients. It’s a shame so few teenagers will get to experience this feeling. I was sold: I didn’t see myself doing anything else with my life.

    The trip made me realize the heartbreaking frailty of the human life. I’m as far more mature than I was at the beginning of that summer. I owe much to my parents for this experience. It was both a brutal look at human life, but also at the wonders humans can do when they work together. I went back last summer, and plan on going back next year.

    About your concerns about not being qualified. It doesn’t really matter, since all you guys did was maintain the area retracted. You followed the surgeon’s instruction step by step, and everything went smoothly. If you did something like making an incision, now that would be unethical. You went there, helped out, and became better people yourselves. This is what medicine is all about, and I believe it shouldn’t be restricted to adults (not saying a 7 year old should scrub in).

    A good number of Undergrad / Premed students get to experience a medical mission. The fact that they’re older doesnn’t mean they’re any more qualified surgical assistants than teens.They aren’t taught how to do surgeries in college. Some first year med students go to medical missions and assist in surgery, even though students aren’t qualified to assist until much later. So why should teenagers assisting in surgery be deemed “unethical”? You said it yourself, it’s not as if they are the ones doing the surgery, We are younger, but not any less qualified than the cases I mentionned. I think simply because they are teens makes then a popular target. Teens aren’t all bullies and criminals. We’re more capable of such experiences than people are wiling to admit. Some doctors understand this, thankfully.

    Many aspiring veterinarians start working and job shadowing in a vet clinic in their teenage years. Some clinics train them to do a little bit of everything: Dental cleaning, blood samples, assisting in necropsies, doing vaccines, even scrubbing in to help in surgery. They’re not in college or vet school yet, and get to do all that. I saw some vets allowing future vets in their OR as young as 11 years old. Why is it then that teenage aspiring doctors shouldn’t be allowed to go on a mission trip and do similar tasks?

    So yes, I do believe teens belong in the OR. Kudos to your father for arranging the trip. You and your brother shouldn’t be over analyzing the ethical dilmemnas of having you assisting in surgeries, but rather feel proud of what you and the team have accomplished, Being able to scrub in can mean the whole world for any aspiring health professional (I know it did for me). Which is why I think more parents / doctors / surgeons should provide this kind of opportunity. When I graduate from Med school, I definitely want to do more mission trips. I’d also like to give back this unique opportunity to motivated teenage kids. As long as they’re genuinely interested in medicine. Whether it’s my kid(s), or someone else’s. I know I’m biased, but I believe every teen / aspiring doctor should have a similar experience as mine.

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