How a doctor learns to give stitches

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by Jessica Ashley

I believe the image I have in my head of med students learning to stitch up a wound comes from “Grey’s Anatomy” — a group of very green doctors slashing and slowly, shakily sewing up Thanksgiving turkeys. I am sure, should I ever need suturing myself, that’s the vision I will have as a soon-to-be medical professional who would certainly be much younger than me seals up a soon-to-be scar.

While “Grey’s” surely has it’s moments of truth, it’s still a bit of a surprise to hear when there’s real medical experience to a hospital show. So when I read a confessional by plastic surgeon and author Anthony Youn, MD on how he learned to perfect suturing, I took note that he hoarded frozen pig feet to practice on while he was a student.

Before that, he mastered surgical knots by using practice board rigged up with shoelaces, plastic, and rubber bands (much like the ones used to teach preschoolers to tie their shoes, I imagine — with the addition of a giant fake wound).

When he’d finally graduated to pig feet, Youn says he stitched and unstitched and restitched them until his fingers ached. And when he ran out of swine, he performed the procedure on chicken breasts, both of which have similar flesh textures to human skin.

Youn didn’t sew up his first human until his third year of med school. He overcame his nerves with the guidance of an overseeing doctor and pretending the lady on the table was just another pig foot. Sounds gross, but not nearly as bad as jacked-up stitches.

As gruesome as slashed-up skin and gaping wounds can be, this is when the story gets a little uncomfortable.

In a full-disclosure moment, Youn explains that student doctors get most of their early-career practice suturing on patients who are conked out in surgery. While the CNN headline where this essay lives touts this as “Student doctors practice on you while you sleep,” Youn says this practice is common.  Just don’t expect to be told that someone in training will be sewing you up. Your clue? The surgeon will introduce the med student to you pre-op.

He says this is not normally revealed so patients don’t needlessly worry. He also reassures readers he performed hundreds of suture procedures this way himself, and this is how good students go on to be proficient doctors. But Youn does due diligence by also offering the reminder that patients have the right to refuse care from a medical student.

From knot boards to pig feet to put-under patients, all that practice paid off for Youn, who claims he’s sutured more than 10,000 wounds in his 15-year career and is confident he could repair a facial injury while blindfolded.

I certainly want my own doctor to be that self-assured, especially if he’s stitching up my face. And while I love learning how he got to be a seasoned suturer, I wince a little to think of a med student working on my body like it’s just another poultry cutlet.

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