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For this high school junior, the Trauma operating room is the classroom

Grayson Graham

During the second semester of their junior year, most high school students are hunkering down as they prepare to apply to college in the fall: focusing on schoolwork to get their GPA as high as possible, touring college campuses, and building their resumes of extracurricular activities. For Grayson Graham, a junior at Germantown Friends School, this also meant donning scrubs and joining trauma surgeons in the Level 1 Trauma Center at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center (PPMC).

Seeing a busy urban trauma center through fresh eyes ultimately gave Graham insight into what a career as a trauma surgeon would actually entail, and helped him to determine next steps as he prepares for the next stage of his life in college, and beyond. 

All of the juniors at Germantown Friends complete an internship where they shadow someone in the “real world” for a month. As someone drawn to a possible fast-paced medical career, Graham explored the possibility of shadowing a trauma surgeon. He was discussing possibilities with his biology teacher Maria Alvarez, who mentioned that their partner was a trauma surgeon at PPMC. 

Graham sent an email to Elinore Kaufman, MD, an assistant professor of Trauma Surgery, and pitched his case, which was met with great enthusiasm. For the month of January, Graham reported to the Division of Trauma at PPMC. Monday through Wednesday, where he shadowed members of the Trauma team, going on rounds, observing in the trauma bays, clinic, and operating rooms. Thursday and Friday, he joined the Penn Injury Science Center team, helping to develop a prototype of a podcast aimed at educating the general public about violence prevention. 

Learning lessons in and out of the operating room

A block resembling skin is being used to learn how to suture.

Graham learned quickly that trauma surgeons don’t only do trauma surgery. 

“It’s definitely fast-paced, and I enjoyed the thrill of the operating room,” Graham said. “A lot of what trauma surgeons do is the non-operative management of patients, through physical exams, imaging, and monitoring of vital signs, which I didn’t know before this experience.”

Indeed, for years trauma surgery has been moving towards non-operative approaches for stabilizing patients with traumatic injuries. For instance, when a patient comes to the Emergency Department (ED) with a penetrating injury to the abdomen, like a gunshot wound, trauma surgeons can use imaging technology, like CT or MRI scans, to determine which organs, if any, were damaged. Closely monitoring vital signs, like heart rate and blood pressure, can indicate sepsis or internal bleeding. 

“This experience was super helpful in showing me what a career in trauma surgery might entail and if it was aligned with my interests,” said Graham. “After this experience, I’m eager to learn more about other surgeons that work in the fast-paced environment, like orthopedic trauma surgeons, who intervene to help repair broken bones after traumatic injury.” 

The experience is what you make of it 

Kaufman emphasized that while exposure to real-life health care settings is valuable to starting a career in medicine, it’s up to the students to make the most of their experience, by asking questions and seeking out opportunities that interest them. 

“I definitely learned the importance of speaking up,” Graham agreed. “If I had questions about something, or wanted to learn more about something else, all I had to do was ask.”

It was by speaking up that Graham was able to shadow additional faculty, and even observed a robotic colectomy, a procedure in which a part of the colon is removed, and the two remaining portions of the colon are attached to one another. This procedure is common in patients with colon cancer.

“Seeing the robotic colectomy was one of the highlights of my experience—and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity if I didn’t just ask,” Graham said. 

Kaufman seconds the value in expressing curiosity and about new experiences. “Penn Medicine has so many cool things going on all the time, and so many resources to help us keep learning,” she said. “It can be overwhelming to know where to start, but just expressing interest or asking questions to your supervisor can help gain exposure to things you’re interested in.” 

Connecting with patients on a human level

Grayson Graham wears scrubs at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center.

A major takeaway from Graham’s experience was how much he could relate to and connect with patients. 

Graham was surprised by how much he enjoyed shadowing Trauma staff on their rounds in the clinic. “It was very satisfying to follow up with patients, and see them start to get better,” he said. 

Graham also recalled how sobering the experience was for him—especially when he encountered patients with addiction or gunshot wounds. 

“I had heard about opioid addiction in Philadelphia, but my eyes were really opened to how widespread the issue is,” Graham said. “It made me think more seriously about how our culture talks about these people, and what we can do to address this problem.”

Graham was particularly impacted by the victims of gun violence he encountered. 

“Before this experience, when I imagined the types of people who were likely to be involved with gun violence, I thought of older, grown men,” Graham admitted. “I was stunned by how young some of the patients were. I remember a 17-year-old came in once with a gunshot wound. That’s only a year older than me—it really changed how I thought about the problem of violence.” 

Graham noted that he was particularly impressed with the Trauma Violence Intervention team—both the Violence Intervention Specialists and the Therapists—and their ability to connect with patients, and support them during the most challenging time of their lives. 

Becoming the next generation of medicine 

Looking toward his future, while he is finishing up his junior year, Graham is already thinking about summer internship opportunities that will help him further explore different specialties. He is particularly interested in public health programs, and in getting his EMT certification before college.

Graham is hopeful that he will be part of a generation of health care professionals that not only develop solutions to some of the most pressing health challenges, but deliver them with compassion and empathy to form a “genuine connection with patients.” 

“I want to help make that a bigger part of medicine,” Graham said.


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