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Cadaver surgeries provide PT students with valuable insights

by Chuck Gordon

Few medical professionals have the gravitas and authority of a surgeon. They’re the boss in the operating room, and to young medical professionals they can often seem unapproachable.

Several Wingate University first- and third-year physical therapy students have a different view of surgeons this week, and that can only help them as they prepare for their careers. Thanks to a grant from the Board of Visitors, Wingate’s Department of Physical Therapy hosted a “surgery” in the Human Anatomy Lab last week, and about 25 WU DPT students were there to do more than just watch.

On Friday, Dr. Tom Theruvath, a cardiothoracic surgeon who works for Novant in Charlotte, performed a pair of valve replacements on a cadaver. Over three hours, he fielded queries from Wingate students, patiently and in a friendly, conversational tone answering all manner of questions: Is that an especially large heart? Why is there a pinhole in the valve? How often do rib fractures occur during the surgical process?

“The students fired questions at him,” says Dr. Karen Friel, DPT director. “They view surgeons now as people they can comfortably approach and speak to confidently and competently.”

Seeing a surgeon as a colleague might seem like a small thing, but healing a patient is a team effort. Just as all humans are different, so are all surgeries. Knowing how the surgery went can help inform the patient’s rehabilitation, so being able to talk comfortably with the person who performed the surgery can help the recovery go more smoothly.

Last week’s surgery was the second of two that were funded through the BoV grant, which paid for the cadavers, plus lunch and transportation for the surgical team. (Theruvath, a physical therapist and an equipment vendor donated their time.) During the first surgical session, held in December of 2020, an orthopedic surgeon performed a partial knee replacement, a total hip replacement and a repair of the anterior cruciate ligament. Both sessions were videoed, and Wingate DPT will use the recordings in classes and will offer them to other health-sciences departments at the University. Wingate is one of the few PT schools in the country to do cadaver surgeries.

Medical student with surgeon

During their three years at Wingate, DPT students spend a lot of time on clinical rotations, but rarely do they observe surgery. Seeing one in the flesh benefits the student in several ways. For one thing, knowing what a patient’s body goes through during surgery makes for a more empathetic and effective physical therapist.

“It's a violent surgery when they’re doing a joint replacement,” Friel says. “It’s an aggressive surgery. It’s important for them to understand what’s going on during the surgery, and how that affects how the patient presents afterward.”

After watching the orthopedic surgery 16 months ago, third-year student Lauryn Kobiela was quick to sign up for the valve replacement. “When this one came up, I was sold,” she says. “I know a heart surgery is a heart surgery, but what else is being affected? He showed us today how they get into a patient – how they enter, what muscles are being affected, what bones are being affected. It’s cool to really see the whole body.”

The idea is for the physical therapists to be able to confidently answer the inevitable questions their patients will have after surgery. Surgeons see the patient only a handful of times, and often under less-than-ideal circumstances. PTs, on the other hand, spend hours with surgical patients over several weeks.

“We have a lot more face-to-face time with them,” Kobiela says. “Seeing the surgery and talking to the surgeon, the guy who does it, puts it all into perspective. I can totally explain to the patient what’s happened to them.”

Friel had the cadaver-surgery idea about a decade ago, when she was chair of the PT department at the New York Institute of Technology, but she could never work out the logistics to bring a surgeon in. Things fell into place at Wingate, thanks in part to the BoV grant.

Friel and Tyler Shultz, assistant professor and director of clinical operations, are also studying the effect that bringing the surgeons to Wingate has on their students. Based on surveys conducted before and after the orthopedic session, students’ knowledge and confidence rose significantly. “Their confidence speaking with the surgeon was the most significant increase,” Friel says.

Friel and Shultz presented their findings at the American Physical Therapy Association’s Combined Sections Meeting in early February.

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