OWL Essay 2020 – Kathlyn Andersen

The Lifecycle of the Orthopod

Orthopods are not born. Orthopods are not made. Neither position is equipped to recognise the innate complexity of the journey from start to finish. Rather, the process of becoming an orthopod is akin to the growth of a rare plant. Orthopaedic surgeons are raised. Like anything that grows, there exists a set of essential conditions that must be met to develop full potential.

In order for a plant to come in to being, there must first exist a seed. The seed represents potential. It contains the necessary genetic material to produce the flower, but it will only reach its potential under the perfect circumstances. All orthopaedic surgeons are born with this potential. Intellectual ability. A predisposition for the practical. A mechanical mind. It is always there, even if it is not cultivated until a later stage. This potential, although necessary, is by no means sufficient. Nor is it unique to orthopaedic surgeons. Under different conditions, this potential may track an alternative path and result in a completely different specimen – a carpenter or an engineer, for example.


OWL Essay 2020 Winner Kathlyn Andersen

The next stage of a plant’s development is germination. Equipped with the genetic potential to grow into an orthopod, the seed must land precisely in the right environment. There are two distinct stages of germination for any doctor. The first is meeting the environmental conditions required to make it through medical school. Becoming a doctor is a privilege that is afforded only to a small proportion of the total pool of the capable population. It requires the ability to attain a good education, to be able to afford a medical degree and to have the necessary supports in place to successfully complete it.

During medical school, germination continues and the seed becomes a seedling. It has been found, particularly for women, that early exposure to orthopaedic surgery and to female role models shapes perceptions of the profession (O’Connor, 2016). However, historically the environmental conditions have been unfavourable for women in the orthopaedic biosphere. This is evident as women represented only 4.8 per cent of Orthopods and 14.9 per cent of orthopaedic trainees in Australia in 2019 (British Orthopaedic Association, 2020). Thankfully, and with hard work, the environment is shifting.

If the seedling survives the initial environmental conditions, the developing orthopod must have the endurance to mature and grow. Time and effort is required to develop strong roots and to make and take opportunities as they arise. It is the survival of the fittest. Raising plants also requires nourishment and nurture: someone to help provide support and encouragement as they make their own way. Good mentors are integral to this process – those who see the potential and foster growth through the investment of time and teaching. Indeed, they are required in any field. They say it takes a village to raise a child. It is no different with a surgeon.

Growth does not stop at maturity. Once the title is attained, orthopaedic surgeons continue to grow, bending towards to sun and seeking favourable conditions to progress and thrive in their practice. They become the mentors to a new generation of growing orthopods. Excellent senior role models, regardless of gender, are essential to cultivating an environment in which to positively grow and shape the next generation. And so, the lifecycle continues.

Orthopods are not born or made; orthopods are raised. It is a rare privilege in many ways, to be raised as an orthopaedic surgeon. The slow and delicate process is a process of growth and maturity. It requires inbuilt potential, favourable environmental conditions, diligence and strong mentorship from the preceding generations.


British Orthopaedic Association. 2020. Australian Gender Diversity in Orthopaedic Surgery. Retrieved from: https://www.boa.ac.uk/careers-in-t-o/international-women-s-day/australian-gender-diversity-in-orthopaedic-surgery.html

O’Connor, M. 2016. Medical school experiences shape women students’ interest in orthopaedic surgery. Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research, 474 (9): 1967-1972

Q and A

As part of a Bulletin piece for the Summer 2020-2021 edition, we've asked Kathlyn to answer a few questions about herself and her essay.

I was born and raised in Sydney. My journey to medicine was slightly unique as my first degree was a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Archaeology and Psychology followed by a Master of Public Health. Once I started medicine, I knew I needed to do something with a procedural focus and I thought that might take the form of emergency medicine; however, the idea was short lived after I discovered orthopaedic surgery during my clinical years. I am now an intern at Ballarat Health Services and am only just beginning to embark on my surgical journey. I have my heart set on orthopaedics, so at this stage I am working on some research projects while trying to gain broad skills and experience. I will be applying for a surgical resident job next year.

I come from a family of lawyers and teachers but both my parents are very practical. I definitely inherited an interest in physics and mechanics from my father which manifested in a shared interest in motorbikes. This resulted in me working on my own bikes as well as a casual job in the workshop at the racetrack. While I get my mechanical disposition from my father, I think I get a lot of my hands-on, practical abilities from my mother, who is very creative.

Unfortunately, outdated stereotypes pertaining to orthopaedic surgery still exist in medical school and I remember being relatively unenthused when I saw I had been given a rotation in my third year. However, by chance I was paired with an enthusiastic, personable consultant at Hawkesbury Hospital in NSW. He involved me in absolutely everything and I was struck by his humility and passion for the specialty. I came out of the rotation utterly inspired. From there, I sought another orthopaedic rotation in Ballarat in my final year and ended up joining the team again for my elective term. I took every opportunity I could to learn and, as a result, I have found two incredibly inspiring and supportive mentors who continue to encourage me and help me to further develop my surgical skills.

Having just begun my internship, I am focused on gaining experience and skills in all areas of medicine because I believe it is important to have a solid grounding. In the longer term, I am focusing my energy on orthopaedics. I want to excel at what I do, but it is equally important to me that I am the kind of surgeon that continuously gives back and is an inspiring and supportive female role model.

Last year was tough for everyone and I think there was a much larger awareness of how colleagues were coping. I feel like I saw a shift towards more supportive team environments, especially in surgery. It was great to see everyone regularly checking in on each other. By continuing to look out for the entire team as the pandemic continues (and when it subsides), we can better care for each other and therefore provide better care for our surgical patients.

The pandemic has also altered the ways in which we communicate with colleagues and patients. Online access to conferences and teaching is something that I have certainly benefited from and would love to see continued for the benefit of the surgical community as a whole. I also think that telehealth has proven useful by providing patients with better access to aspects of surgical care. While it is certainly not a perfect modality, I think we should consider how it can be better utilised moving forward.

I was often told to keep an open mind and I still believe that is good advice. It is important to experience all areas of medicine. Further, never judge a specialty too quickly based on stereotypes. As with many things, everyone will have an opinion about your future and your chosen path, but at the end of the day if you know what you want, you have to go for it. My advice would be to put yourself out there and seek as many opportunities as possible through your university as well as through the Australian Orthopaedic Association and the Orthopaedic Women’s Link. Finally, gravitate towards surgeons and orthopaedic trainees you look up to and who will guide and support you.