SOM graduate is orthopaedic surgery trailblazer
Published on Thursday, September 26, 2019
By: Ruth Cummins, email@example.com
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in the Summer 2019 edition of Mississippi Medicine, the medical alumni magazine.
Dr. Karen Hand recalls being an eager medical student, scrubbing in on a challenging operation with Dr. George Russell, the orthopaedic surgeon who, in her eyes, was Superman.
“When I got to that point in my fellowship, I remember saying to myself, ‘I’m on the right side of the table now,’” Hand said.
“As a student, you are basically holding retractors,” Hand said. “I remember standing on the opposite side of the table from him. I couldn’t see very well from there.
“He said to me, ‘One day, you’ll be on this side of the table.’”
She pursued that goal as an orthopaedics resident at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, and when she applied for her trauma fellowship at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, Russell wrote her recommendation letters.
Today an orthopaedic trauma surgeon at Memorial Hospital at Gulfport, Hand isn’t just doing what she loves. The Meridian native is also one of the trailblazers for women orthopaedic surgeons in the region and tries to pique the interest of women who are choosing a surgery specialty.
She chose the Medical Center after receiving her Bachelor of Science in biochemistry from Mississippi College in Clinton. “UMMC had a lot to offer,” Hand said. “I considered other places, but I was in Jackson already. It made sense to stay in Mississippi. It was much more affordable than other places.”
She was awarded the full-tuition James A. McDevitt, M.D. Scholarship and began her studies in fall 2002.
“It was definitely hard. Anyone would say you expect it to be challenging, but it’s more challenging when you get there,” she said.
“You’re surrounded by people who are very smart and who were at the top of their class. There was a lot of pressure, but most of it you put on yourself.”
NO OFF DAYS
During her third-year clinical rotations, “I really loved everything surgical,” Hand said. “I knew I wanted to do a surgery specialty pretty early on. It was just a matter of deciding what.
“Orthopaedics just clicked. I loved the people doing that work, and I wanted to do what they were doing. It’s all about putting things together and fixing problems.”
Russell, James L. Hughes Chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and Rehabilitation, remembers Hand as “energetic and engaged, industrious and hungry. I thought she was a very good student, and I’m sorry she didn’t match with us.”
Hand’s time “on the other side of the table” during her surgery training wasn’t wasted, he said. “One of the tenets of surgery is that you’ve got to be able to be a good assistant before you can be a good surgeon. That’s just part of it,” Russell said.
“I can imagine being where she couldn’t see, but her role was vital in getting a surgery completed. If you work hard and are industrious, you do transition to the other side of the table, and you can appreciate how important it is to have a great assistant.”
There were few women in orthopaedic surgery at that time, and that’s still the case, Hand said. “I was a little intimidated at first, but that made me want to do it even more. I just didn’t see many females.
“People would say to me, ‘You’re short. How do you do orthopaedics? You’re so small,’” said Hand, who stands 5-foot-1.
When she joined her practice at Memorial Hospital, there were two women orthopaedic trauma surgeons on staff, Hand said. Those numbers still aren’t robust. “We’re trying to get more interest. Females tend to shy away from orthopaedic surgery,” she said.
During her fifth year of residency, Hand married Starkville resident Phil Hartness. “That kind of changed my world. My focus changed,” she said.
“Before, I hadn’t really considered coming back to Mississippi, but then the goal was to come back, and we ended up on the Gulf Coast. We wanted to be somewhat close to our families as we started our family.”
She said they weren’t expecting to really like the Gulf Coast, but they were wrong. She loves her job and the flexibility it gives her and Phil, a financial planner, in bringing up their three children: Alexis, 4; Kaylee, 3; and baby Wynne, who turns 1 in November.
“I do have days at home and am on call 24 hours at a time, but there really are no off days when you have three children. It’s really a matter of survival at this point,” she said. “We’re big MSU fans, and we’re still buying our tickets and trying to get to one or two games a year.
“We are in this constant mode of chaos, and we’re trying to embrace the chaos!”
A CAREER IN BLOOM
Hand performed research with Dr. David Magers, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Mississippi College. “She was like a daughter to me,” Magers said “She did probably a dozen or more research presentations at conferences and symposiums. She was fantastic.”
Instead of beakers and test tubes, however, Hand worked with computers in the lab. “She did mathematical modeling on different chemical systems using the rules of quantum mechanics,” Magers said.
It’s no surprise that Hand’s career is blooming, Magers said. “In her last year at MC, she would do triathlons. She’s very motivated,” he said. “When she puts her mind to something, she will get it done.”
Hand’s achievements are being recognized by her alma mater. She’s been named the inaugural 2019 Young Alumnus of the Year for the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “This is the 125th year for the department, so we’re doing something special,” Magers said.
“We’ve been choosing alumni of the year for 30 or more years, but for the anniversary, we decided to choose a young alumnus. She’s our first.”
Hand’s practice can be busy, depending on what’s going on locally.
“We get a lot of water-oriented injuries in the summer, when people are boating or fishing, or visiting the beach. The number of people goes up during spring break or (the vintage car event) Cruisin’ the Coast. There’s a lot of variability there.”
Hand’s partner in the Memorial Hospital trauma service is Dr. John Raff. “She’s a very determined woman who has confidence and control of her career,” said Raff, who’s worked with her for more than a decade.
“We’re in different generations, but we dovetail pretty well. We can have a different way of approaching things, but they’re very complementary,” Raff said. “She gets professional results, and her patients love her.
“I’m privileged to have someone of her talent and personality to work with. She’s professional, empathetic and gets good outcomes.”
Hand’s next career step is a year-long hand surgery fellowship. She and her family are moving to Birmingham in August 2019 for that phase of her training at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“There’s a strong possibility that we will come back to the Coast,” she said. “There’s a huge need for hand surgeons here.”
Hand stays connected to UMMC as 2018-2019 president of the School of Medicine Alumni Board. Since 2016, she’s worked with students at the William Carey University College of Osteopathic medicine as an adjunct clinical professor.
“It’s been an interesting opportunity for me to see things from a different perspective,” she said.
And, she’s still a student of medicine, both on the job and through her fellowship.
“I think that it’s important to always keep learning. People think that when you get done with your training, that’s it, but the truth is, you’re just beginning. You’re really just starting to apply what you have learned,” she said.
“You’re making decisions about how to treat patients, and that’s where you learn in a different way. There’s always going to be something that you haven’t seen before. You go back to the things you know, but you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help.
“People appreciate you doing the best for them, and giving them the best care.”