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From Patient to Pre-Med Student

Written by Joshua Alpert, MD on April 20, 2015

How a doctor’s care turned one high school students’ serious/rare injury into a possible career in medicine

Dr Alpert: As an orthopedic surgeon, one of the more rewarding things I provide for the community, is to offer a shadowing program for high school and college students who are aspiring doctors. They spend time with me one on one in the office and operating setting, learning about orthopedic surgery, and watching the day to day activities of a practicing orthopedic surgeon.

Dr Alpert: My experience with Nathan Wells is unique, because he is a former patient if mine returning to shadow as a pre-med college student who wants to become a doctor.


Nathan Wells is an 18-year-old male college student at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

On May 27, 2013, when he was 16 years old, he was at gym in school at South Elgin High School where he was doing a relay race and he ran into a wall with his 2 outstretched hands. He broke both of his wrists. He ended up presenting to me in my office with bilateral right and left wrist fractures with the bones angled and not in the proper position.

I took him to the operating room and did an uncommon surgery, where both of his wrist were operated on and fixed at the same time. I performed a right and left wrist open reduction, internal fixation where a plate and screws were placed on both of his radius (wrist) bones to align them up into a perfect position. He tolerated the procedure well. He healed and recovered. He is currently back to all sports and doing well.

Nathan is now a freshman at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. He is currently a premedical student and wants to become a physician. One of the reasons he wants to become a physician is because of the experience he had in my office as a patient.

He has been shadowing me all week and observing orthopedic surgery and patient care. He is doing this on his time off during his spring break as he decides what he wants to do in the medical field.

Nathan currently is 18 years old. He went to South Elgin High School when he had the injury. He is from Bartlett, Illinois. He is at the University of Alabama-Birmingham for college. He is a pre-med major with a major in mechanical engineering with a biomedical minor.

Josh Alpert: How did the injury happen?

Nathan Wells: On the last day of school at my high school, we did a relay race in the gym. Basically, it was running down to touch the wall, come back, and cross the finish line. When I was running down, I touched the wall and then when I came back I was running really, really fast and when I hit the wall both wrists popped out and just shattered into a bunch of pieces. I basically just sat down and waited for the ambulance to come.

Josh Alpert: How was your experience with the surgery?

Nathan Wells: At first, it was horrible. It took them awhile to get an IV in my arm. It took them 8 tries and it was very uncomfortable. After coming out of surgery, I was in a lot of pain. It is not very fun having people rip your arms open but then as time went on my wrists got better and better. The scars healed pretty well, almost unnoticeable when you look at them. There is a slight pink area but that is it. The surgery went really well and was really quick. It is kind of shocking that he got me in so quickly considering he had a wait list for surgeries. Overall, I had a good experience. Granted, I do not want to go back there again, but if I had to choose I would say I would have him do it again.

Josh Alpert: What do you do now, like current sports or anything like that?

Nathan Wells: As of right now, the wrists are basically back to 100%. I can lift and I work. I went back to work basically 2 months after the injury doing light lifting, nothing too bad. After 3 months of recovery, I was back into full swing. I played volleyball for my senior year and our team played really well. I was a starter the entire time. I have no issues with the wrists anymore and very little pain, if any.

Josh Alpert: Why do you want to be a doctor?

Nathan Wells: After this happened, it showed me a whole different picture of what I could do with my life. I go to the University of Alabama-Birmingham, and it is a very well-known medical school in the South. Just being surrounding by people that are going on for med track made me realize that I could do something more seeing how mechanical objects such as the titanium plates that he put in me and how they were designed. Basically, I want to go into orthopedics kind of doing the same thing Dr. Alpert did. I just think that I could do something in the med field that I could not do in other places.

Josh Alpert: What have you liked so far, office/surgery?

Nathan Wells: So far in the office I liked the interaction with people. I am a very extrovert and I like talking to people. I enjoy listening and hearing stories. I also have enjoyed hearing different stories about what happened and how I could fix those. I do not like cortisone shots. In the surgery room, it is very cool to watch. I got to experience 4 shoulder surgeries and a trigger finger surgery. I watched on the video camera everything that he does and he does it so quickly. I enjoyed the experience. It is something great to see and it kind of shows me just what I would be doing if I was to become an orthopedic surgeon. It is not as bad as everybody makes it out to be. Shoulder surgeries are not that invasive. It is actually really cool just seeing what it would be like working in this particular job and this has been the best of this shadow experience.

Josh Alpert: What have you learned from me as a whole?

Nathan Wells: Dr. Alpert is a great guy and he is very down to earth, very nice, and cares for his patients. In the OR room, he is very quick and he knows exactly what he is doing. He would be a great mentor and he is a good teacher too. While in the OR room, he was talking to me through the entire thing and I learned a lot. He showed me every single thing he was doing. He sat me down and taught me all about what I would have to do to become an orthopedic surgeon or any other doctor. He walked me through the process of 4 years of college and 4 years of med school. He then explained what residency and fellowship were and that was a big help and it shows me that I have a lot more schooling than initially anticipated. It kind of gets me focused on how far and how much I would really have to do to become a doctor like him.

Josh Alpert: What do you do, where do you go, what extracurricular activities do you do?

Nathan Wells: Currently, I am a freshman at University of Alabama-Birmingham. I currently do research under Dr. Barry in a biomedical lab. I am a mechanical engineer with a biomedical minor. I play ultimate Frisbee for the UAB team. I am outgoing and athletic and I get along with a lot of people. I am in the Science and Engineering honors program there. I am home on spring break right now and doing this shadow experience.

Josh Alpert: Do you have any issues with the wrists to this day?

Nathan Wells: I do not have any pain in normal activities. Heavy lifting over long periods of time will make my arms weak. I do weightlifting to get them stronger and it helps. I went from having horrible wrists to now having perfectly functioning, back-to-normal wrists. I can tell when it is raining outside. My wrists go cold with the titanium plates and it is really, really creepy. Overall, he did a great job and the scars are basically gone. There is really no recognition unless I was to show someone where they were. I can do everything, I play sports, and I am on a college team. I am basically back to normal. With awkward carrying when I have put weight with my open palm facing up, it puts stress on my muscles and it can get painful after awhile but overall my wrists are as good as new.