Shadowing Surgeons: Three Students Spend a Month in the OR

Crystal , Behooz and Aaron pictured at St. Barnabas hospital, where they did a four-week long surgery observership program.

Aaron Wey wants to be a surgeon. Crystal Kania hopes to be an ophthalmologist, while Behrooz Vaziri-Khorrami intends to work as a cardiologist.

The three, all biomedical engineering majors, recently jump-started their medical careers. They spent a month this summer at St. Barnabas Medical Center, in Livingston, shadowing surgeons.  The students participated in a surgical observation program run by the Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME).

To see how surgeons operate is a privilege usually reserved for third-year medical students: Aaron, Crystal and Behrooz, however, are undergraduates. Nonetheless, for four weeks they visited St. Barnabas hospital on weekday mornings and spent hours in the operating room.  The surgeries they observed included a hernia repair, a kidney transplant, a hip replacement and an arterial bypass.

They saw the high-tech devices that surgeons use – devices designed by biomedical engineers.  And since they major in biomedical engineering and want to be doctors, their time in the hospital let the three students see what their future jobs will be like.

Two of the students, Crystal and Aaron, already have seats reserved in a medical school.  They are in the accelerated 7-year BS/MD program offered by the Honors College and the medical school at St. George’s University.  And the third student, Behrooz, is such a scholar (he has a perfect GPA: a 4.0) that most medical schools would be happy to have him.  

All three students have impressive credentials.  Crystal is a first-generation American college student.  Her parents were born in India but she grew up in Livingston.  In her words, she “has a passion for eyes” and she has done vision research with Professor Tara Alvarez, a prominent researcher in the field.  The research she did in Professor Alvarez’s lab was so successful that Crystal presented two papers on her research: one at Harvard Medical School and the second at Brown’s Medical School.  Given her passion for vision research, Crystal wants to specialize in ophthalmology.

Aaron Wey is a self-proclaimed “Jersey boy” who grew up in East Brunswick. But like so many NJIT students, this Jersey boy has a diverse heritage: he’s half Chinese, and his other half is a mix of German, Irish, Italian and Native American Indian. He’s also a scholar athlete.  In high school he played basketball and baseball, earning letters for each.  He has a 4.0 GPA and has presented a research paper at Harvard Medical School. He is now doing orthopedic research at UMDNJ.  He wants to be a surgeon, and says he’ll specialize in whatever field can help the most people. 

Behrooz was born in Iran, and immigrated to America with his family after his sophomore year in high school.  In Iran, he had attended the nation’s top middle and high school.  His parents, though, wanted him and his brother to attend an American university.  The family settled in Millburn, N.J., which has one of the best high schools in the state. 

Behrooz excelled at Milburn High in math and science. His grasp of English was slight, so he took ESL classes during the summer at Seton Hall.  He mastered English, graduated with honors and won a scholarship to NJIT’s Honors College.  He has an engineer’s mind -- a tinkerer’s intellect, and in his spare time he works on electronics.  He has built clocks, radios and programmable robots.   Soon, he hopes to tinker with the ultimate organ: the human heart. He aims to be a cardiologist. 

In this interview, Crystal, Aaron and Behrooz, all scholars in the Honors College, talk about what it was like to spend four weeks shadowing surgeons.    

What was the best part of the surgical observing program?

Aaron: Being in the operating room.  The most interesting surgery we observed was a Living-related Renal (kidney) Transplant. The surgeons worked with diligence at the delicate procedure while using many biomedical-engineered devices. In addition to the extreme skill required to perform the operation, there was also a race against the clock. From the moment the donor kidney was removed from the donor, it was quickly and carefully prepared by the surgeon for transplantation. Then it was handed to another surgeon for installment. I was very impressed by the efficiency of their work and their ability to work so well as a team.

Did the surgeons use a lot of high-tech tools to do their surgeries? Were you inspired by what you saw in the hospital?

Crystal: Very. They used a da Vinci machine to assist them with surgery. It’s a robot with mechanical arms and a few cameras that the surgeons control. And for eye surgery, they used an excimer laser that cuts un-invasively through the fine layers of the human eye.  These devices gave me a whole-hearted appreciation for modern medicine.  I also gained an appreciation for patients, who must trust in the new technologies as well as in the doctors who control them.  I was especially inspired by the ophthalmology department at St. Barnabas, where I witnessed cataract surgery.  My favorite memory of the summer program was when I shadowed Dr. Peter Nussbaum, who told me to pose as a medical student.  Wearing a white coat and taking notes, I got to see the back of a patient's retina through a specialized camera.  The neural arrangement of the eye is very intriguing,

You said you were doing tissue engineering research at NJIT.  Can you use that background to help the surgeons at the hospital?

Behrooz: One of the surgeries we attended was a left arm artery bypass; where a vein was harvested from the patient’s leg and transplanted in his arm, to redirect the flow of a blocked artery. It took about 4 hours; and more than half of the time was spent one harvesting the artery from the leg. So my reaction was to say why not create an artificial artery through tissue engineering. The doctor explained, though, that the small diameters of artificial arteries have too many problems such as body rejection and the formation of scar tissue that leads to blockage. 

Is your family happy in America?

Behrooz: My parents came here to give me and my brother a chance at having a great higher education. It was certainly hard for my parents, who gave up so much to give me and my brother a better chance at education and life.  But earlier this year my brother, Ramtin Vaziri, earned his master’s in information technology from NJIT.  He has a great job now working as a software developer with Tata Consultancy Services. And I will attend med school.  So my parents are happy.

Overall, how valuable was the NJIT/St. Barnabas Summer program?

Aaron: It allowed the three of us to see the direct impact that biomedical engineering has on health care. We were able to observe physicians and learn a lot about medicine and biomedical engineered technology. 

As a biomedical engineering major, it was remarkable to see how the concepts I have learned at NJIT apply in the medical field. We saw first hand how biomedical engineering extends the capabilities of a surgeon. Laparoscopic cameras and high definition LCD screens allowed surgeons to operate internally without making large incisions. Moreover, with advancements in biocompatible and biodegradable materials such as sutures and surgical meshes, doctors and patients both have more confidence in surgical implants.

All in all, the four week experience allowed the three of us to appreciate the work of both biomedical engineers and physicians. The program is valuable precisely because it showed us how medicine and engineering unite. 

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)