Highlights from the 4th HYMS National Undergraduate Surgical Conference

Saturday 28th January 2017 marked a day of excitement for many enthusiastic students considering a career in surgery as the fourth HYMS National Undergraduate Surgical Conference was hosted in Hull for the first time. Embracing the 2017 City of Culture theme, Hull welcomed students and faculties from around the country to inspire a new generation of future doctors. The event featured four inspiring talks delivered by selected keynote speakers, each from diverse backgrounds. Accompanying the talks, the event exhibited a wide range of workshops and an excellent poster presentation session.

After a short introduction from Professor Ian Chetter, the first speaker, Dr Liz O’Riordan, took the stage. Dr O’Riordan gave a captivating speech about being both a breast cancer patient and a consultant oncoplastic breast surgeon. She explained that being a patient helped her gain a unique understanding of the way in which patients experience illness and how this differs from their doctor’s understanding. Dr O’Riordan shared the lessons she learned on her journey, stunning the audience with the prowess with which she told her story. She also imparted some very important advice on how to become a better communicator and the value of introducing yourself to patients. Dr O’Riordan said: “When you’re a patient and your scared and people don’t tell you who they are, you just feel so frightened. By saying ‘hello my name is’, redresses the power balance; it makes patients feel they can ask you questions.”

They say doctors make the worst patients. The key, is to treat them like any other patient. Dr O’Riordan said: “When you’re sick, you’re scared and frightened, and just want someone to look after you.” She explained that if you do not treat doctors the same way as any other patient, you may omit key information by assuming they already know all there is to know. She shared a personal, light-hearted example: “Chemotherapy, I knew you lost the hair on your head. I didn’t realise you lost all your hair. Free leg wax on the NHS!”

After the keynote, we had a short break before the first workshop started. I attended a basic suturing session where I learned how to close wounds using the simple interrupted suturing technique. It was great fun once I mastered the art of the instrument tie. Later, I practiced this skill in the plastics workshop which involved mole removal and cyst extraction on pig’s skin. I think I did a good job, if we can overlook the surgical blade and two needles I broke trying to cut and pierce the tough pig skin.

The second keynote speaker, Mr Adam Williams, is the current President of ASiT, the Association of Surgeons in Training. Mr Williams talked a little about ASiT, explaining his role as a British Neurosurgical Trainees’ Association (BNTA) representative in 2013, and the new role he plays as part of the executive committee. He took us on a journey from medical school to how he ended up training as a neurosurgeon, explaining that he found neurophysiology complicated and yet it sparked his interest early on. Mr Williams told us he had the time of his life completing his elective in the neurosurgery department in Bristol. This experience solidified his passion for neurosurgery and at this conference he shared with us his love for the specialty.

After the second talk, it was time for a lunch break and the opportunity to admire the brilliant student poster presentations. Following this, the second workshop of the day ensued. For me, the spinal neurosurgery skills workshop was the most exciting part of the day. We took the unparalleled opportunity to play around with the surgical equipment before us. What made this more remarkable was the fact that we were using the identical surgical tools spinal surgeons use on patients. After a brief introduction on the vertebral column, we were shown how to fix adjacent vertebrae together using drills, chisels, titanium rods, and screws. They were all beautifully designed and colour coded. We put these newfound skills into practice shortly afterwards by stabilising the cervical and lumbar regions. Paying close attention to the differences between the two, it was evident that different specialist equipment is needed for the smaller, more delicate cervical vertebrae compared with the larger, thicker lumbar vertebrae. As a first-year student, what made this opportunity very educational was that it enabled me to combine this knowledge of the surgical treatment for vertebral column fractures with patients I’ve seen at clinical placement and problem-based learning cases in the musculoskeletal and nervous system block.

Mr Declan Costello, Consultant ENT Surgeon at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, delivered fascinating a talk on voice disorders. After a brief introduction into the invention of the laryngoscope, Mr Costello spoke about his special interest of treating hoarseness and voice disorders in patients with vocal cord nodules, cysts, and vocal cord paralysis. We watched videos of patients with vocal fold anomalies and identified the cause of their condition, which often involves the vocal folds not entirely closing. We also acquired some insight into Mr Costello’s unique education: having graduated from St John’s College, Cambridge, with a music degree, he went onto study medicine at Imperial College London. A key message he conveyed in his talk was to be pluripotent in what you do but to also have a specialist interest to set you apart. This stemmed from the difficulties he faced finding a consultant ENT position.

Mr George Spink, Consultant Neurosurgeon in Hull, took the audience on a wondrous journey from the history of instruments for trepanation, drilling a hole into the skull, to a case of awake craniotomy performed on one of his patient. The audience listened attentively as he talked us through the procedure and showed videos of the patient’s response to stimulation of the different areas of the brain. The conference ended on a humorous note as Mr Spink explained how the patient had a gelastic seizure after the operation, which was set off by laughter in response to a joke. But that aside, the patient made a full recovery and doesn’t recall much of the operation despite being awake.

I thoroughly enjoyed my day at the conference and I would absolutely encourage everybody to attend next year’s event. Whether you are considering a future in surgery or remain undecided, there is something for everyone; from networking opportunities to inspirational talks, and a wide range of exciting workshops. Thank you to the committee and faculty members for their hard work towards collectively delivering such an exceptional conference. I would also like to thank Alex Abel and the HYMS student blog team for the fantastic opportunity to write about my experience.

All photos used in this post credited to Daniel Andrew Pahlen (Dandrew photography)