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Drilling into a model of a skull: a ‘cool’ taste of doctoring for Philly high schoolers

A Penn Medicine program exposed students to careers in neurosurgery.

Promise Lamons watched as Decontee Moses removed surgical staples from a model of a human skull at Penn Medicine. The two Sayre High School students are part of a summer program to expose West Philadelphia teens to careers in health sciences.
Promise Lamons watched as Decontee Moses removed surgical staples from a model of a human skull at Penn Medicine. The two Sayre High School students are part of a summer program to expose West Philadelphia teens to careers in health sciences.Read moreTom Avril

Promise Lamons used a scalpel to cut into a model of a human head on Thursday, hesitating slightly as she pierced its rubbery, fleshlike exterior. The 15-year-old then switched to a drill to make a hole in the “skull” beneath.

As little white chips of fake bone sprayed forth, she listened to Penn Medicine physicians describing how they do the same thing to patients with traumatic brain injury, eventually inserting a catheter to remove excess fluid.

Lamons, who is starting 10th grade this fall at Sayre High School, said she could envision herself doing it as a career.

“It’d be cool to do that on an actual brain,” she said.

She was among a dozen students from West Philadelphia public schools who got a crash course in neurosurgery Thursday at Penn Medicine University City, a high-rise outpatient facility on Market Street. The event was part of a summer-long “Pipeline Plus” program designed to teach students about careers in the health sciences, run by Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships.

Pipeline programs such as this one are expected to become even more important in helping schools to attract diverse classes of students in an era when affirmative action is under fire. In a June ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court restricted how universities can use race as a factor in their admissions process.

Early exposure

Few medical specialties have lower numbers of Black physicians than neurosurgery, at 4.2% of the total, according to a 2021 study by the Association of American Medical Colleges. Black women are even more scarce, accounting for just 0.6% of the total in a 2018 survey.

Penn Medicine is in the same ballpark, with one Black neurosurgeon out of 22 total (4.5%). But the figure is higher for Penn’s neurosurgery residents, the newly minted physicians who are still undergoing training in the specialty. Four of the 21 department’s residents are Black (19%).

A big part of the solution is showing students that such a career is within their reach, said Zarina S. Ali, the chief of neurosurgery at nearby Penn Presbyterian Medical Center.

“If you’re not exposed to something,” she said, “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Ali ran the program for the students on Thursday, opening with a description of how neurosurgery requires many people in addition to the surgeon. To illustrate the point, she invited nurses, administrators, and researchers into the meeting room, asking them to introduce themselves one by one.

She then explained that neurosurgery is about more than just the brain, describing other procedures to treat ailments of the spine and peripheral nerves.

Each student received a ballpoint pen in the shape of a miniature human spine, along with a squishy model of a vertebra for use as a stress-reliever.

They also got a signed copy of “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” by Penn professor Angela Duckworth.

No pain

Then it was time for drilling into a model skull and other hands-on activities. Surgeons drill such holes to insert a slender catheter into the brain, drawing off excess fluid to reduce the pressure, Ali said.

Lamons, the rising sophomore at Sayre, asked if it would hurt.

No, said Daniel Yoshor, chair of the neurosurgery department at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. Medication is used to numb the skin, much like at a dentist’s office, he said. But the brain itself, despite being the organ that registers pain and other sensations from elsewhere in the body, does not have its own sensory nerves.

“The brain is where all your feelings go to, but it has no feeling itself,” he said.

In addition to trying their hand at skull-drilling, the students used sutures and staples to repair simulated wounds.

Decontee Moses, 17, who is going into 12th grade at Sayre, used a silver tool to remove surgical staples from a model skull.

Asked if he was interested in a career in medicine, he said he was keeping his options open.

“I would consider it,” he said. “But I don’t know if it’s for me.”

Lamons, on the other hand, was all-in — though not necessarily the field of neurosurgery. She said she might be interested in studying new treatments for skin conditions, as she has eczema.

While the afternoon event was valuable, it represented just one element in the Netter Center’s multiyear program to engage Philly high school students in the health sciences, said Cory Bowman, the center’s associate director.

During the school year, Penn students visit West Philadelphia high schools to help the high schoolers conduct animal dissections and other lab experiments. The high schoolers also learn to read medical literature, prepare a slide presentation, and give presentations.

Those taking part this summer are learning how to create a public health campaign.

“It’s not just coming to Penn once a week,” he said. “It’s how do you really do the career exposure in an engaging, hands-on way.”