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Girls Offered A Glimpse Into Orthopedics

In a makeshift operating room inside a hospital north of Tampa, Payton Santana is learning to fix a broken leg.

The 18-year-old and 49 other young women donned scrubs recently for a day of mock surgeries at the Medical Center of Trinity, taking turns breaking polyurethane bones and restoring them with rods and power tools.

While Santana is enrolled in a program at Wiregrass High School in Pasco County to become a certified nursing assistant, this experience is different. She said repairing bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles is like solving a complicated puzzle.

Her favorite part, she said, is "when it came to the engineering part of putting the pieces in the bone and figuring out, 'Ok, maybe just a little bit over to the left,'... And 'Oh, there, it's perfect,"... and then everything just locks into place.”

“That's probably the most rewarding part, when you figure it out and it all fits together and you just fixed somebody's leg," she said.

Today, only 4 percent of the nation's orthopedic surgeons and engineers are women, so female professionals from California to Florida are volunteering to expose thousands of girls each year to the specialized fields.

Surgeon Jennifer Cook of Trinity is one of these mentors. She teaches girls to use power tools and sewing needles, and shows them how to insert surgical steel rods into a limb. The activity makes surgery less intimidating, she said.

"Once you hold the drill for the first time, it’s not a big deal anymore,” Cook said. “But I think what happens if you've never done it is you think 'I can't do it,' but once they have this opportunity with this program to do it, they realize, 'Hey, it's not a big deal. I can make, I can build, I can construct and it's not just something that should be left to men to do.' "

Amelia Lanier was once one of those girls, holding an electric drill for the first time. Now the University of Delaware engineering doctoral student travels around the country assisting in this program, which is called the Perry Initiative.

Now, she's in the hospital operating room in Trinity, showing Santana through the steps of tightening steel rods in a bone with metal fasteners. Lanier said the program succeeds in getting women to study science, technology, engineering and medicine, or STEM.

"85 percent of the girls that do the Perry Program pursue stem majors in college and that's about four to five times the national average,” Lanier said.

Also, she said, this program is different from the popular and expensive STEM camps held after school or on college campuses each summer. It's free.

Stephanie Pearlman is a biomedical engineering graduate student at the University of California-Irvine. A 2010 event with mentors in San Francisco was her first exposure to surgery. She said she wouldn't have had that opportunity if she had to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars.

“I'm a first-generation college student and my parents are blue collar. So for me, having some sort of resource and access to see what engineering and medicine is like really drew me to the program,” Pearlman said.

While Santana and her fellow high schoolers are only just getting a first taste of what orthopaedic medicine is like, she's intrigued. She said her high school classes have prepared her to check blood pressure, insert a catheter or help a patient avoid bedsores. But this surgical experience, she says, opens her eyes to a whole new set of opportunities. 

"I have an idea of what I want to do but I feel like this would be a good chance for me to expand my horizons and figure out whether I want to go down the physical science path or the building science path,” Santana said.

Whatever she decides, the mentors at this session say they'll be checking back in on Santana and the other girls. The mock surgeries are just the first step. 

Daylina Miller is a reporter for WUSFin Tampa. WUSF is part of Health News Florida, which receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Daylina Miller is a multimedia reporter for WUSF and Health News Florida, covering health in the Tampa Bay area and across the state.