Shadowing a Trauma Surgeon: One Student’s Experience

January 23, 2017

By: Jennifer Tran-Kiem

Shadowing a trauma surgeon can teach you more about emergency medicine than any textbook.

A few years ago, my fascination with medicine started with emergency medicine. Now as an EMT, I’ve transported patients to the emergency room and have seen the kinds of emergency room patients that the emergency medicine physician handles.

I’ve seen patients who have needed immediate medical attention, and those who could wait. What I hadn’t gotten to see yet was the in-hospital care given to those emergent patients after I transported them to the hospital. Some of those emergent patients are trauma patients, seen by a trauma surgeon.

What I Observed Shadowing a Trauma Surgeon

Some hospitals have the ability to treat trauma patients. Among those hospitals, some are categorized as Level I, having the maximum available resources that handle trauma, all the way to Level III, having the minimum resources to handle trauma.

The on-call trauma surgeon I shadowed remained in the hospital for the entire 24-hour shift. Surgeons rotated 24-hour shifts, so when he wasn’t on-call, he was attending to his patients pre and post operation.

The trauma surgeon exuded a calm, compassionate nature, which helped to mollify the patients and their families in the midst of difficult news. He delivered an equal level of support to all patients, whether they were undergoing simple or arduous surgical procedures. He provided hope and encouragement to those anxiously waiting to recover.

Most of all, he worked well with all levels of medical staff–PAs, nurses, techs, and even me, a shadow student. He believes that the medical field can grow as a whole so long as there are people in the field who are willing to teach.

How I Can Apply this Experience to My Future

As I was shadowing the trauma surgeon, he was very eager to help me understand several things: why surgery may not necessarily be the right treatment for both the surgeon and the patient, how insurance affects the treatment the patient receives and how to deliver the treatment, and how different hospital departments work together to diagnose and treat a patient.

I was able to observe how the time-sensitive nature of treatment in a trauma bay, versus the calmer nature of a hospital bed, impacts the surgeon’s approach in assessing a patient.

In general, developing the skill of versatility is important for all medical staff to successfully work with any unexpected or sudden life-threatening issues posed to patients. Ask yourself if you’re ready to handle that level of unpredictability. It’s a great way to start gauging if the field of emergency medicine and trauma is something you’d be interested in and successful doing.

Where You Can Find Shadowing Experience

Connections are one of the many key influences needed to get to where you want to go. If you have ties with family, friends, neighbors, fellow students, or professors who work in a place you’d be interested in seeing, get in contact with them. If using these connections isn’t an option, email them directly or make a phone call. Finding a physician who happens to be an alumnus from your school is an easy way to establish some ground. Happy hunting and shadowing!


Jennifer is a recent graduate from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a B.S. in Physiology & Neurobiology and a minor in Spanish business. When she’s not working, she enjoys exercising, hanging out with family and friends, reading, and impromptu road trips.

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