Week 6:
The “Uncomfortable” “Comfort Zone”

Dimensions Fellow in Orthopedic Research

Children's Hospital Colorado | Aurora, Colorado

July 21, 2019

We finally got our last patient list to work on last Thursday. I may need to speed up a little bit with the data collection since we are including a lot of new patients while we want to have at least one whole week for data analysis before the final presentation.

Research is very interesting but the process is somewhat tedious. Therefore, I have been contacting physicians from the hospital and asking for shadowing opportunities instead of sitting at my desk all day. I met Dr Susan Apkon in the gait data review last Tuesday, who is a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor as well as the chief of the rehabilitation department. I got a chance to shadow her rounding on the inpatient unit at the children’s hospital with a fellow Cosmo and a fourth-year medical school student, Deanna.

Before going into each of the patients’ rooms, we had a short meeting with the nurses to go through any new conditions observed and new radiographs obtained. The children in the unit are mostly patients who had severe injuries such as spinal cord injury, brain injury, trauma, and cerebral infarcts. Dr. Susan and the students spent a lot of time talking to the parents as well as the patients. We also saw some patients in the process of doing activities with physical and occupational therapists. Even though we were seeing some of the most severe conditions, Dr. Apkon started the conversations less stressful by having casual talks and small jokes with the families. After leaving each patient’s room, Dr. Apkon would do a brief summary and had the fellow and the student discuss what to do as the next step. Instead of acting like a teacher, she was more like a colleague. I also learned that rehab physicians have frequent communications with doctors from different specialties, such as orthopedics, neurology, and GI.

The paintings on the inpatient unit.

On our way back to the workroom, Dr. Apkon chatted with a little girl playing on her own in the hallway and asked her how long she had been there, like a friendly neighbor. I found myself loving the inpatient environment as I always did way back home in China.

I volunteered on a pediatric oncology inpatient unit in my hometown Guangzhou. Most of the kids I came across were pediatric cancer patients. Every Friday after high school, I went to the hospital with other volunteers to do various activities with the kids, such as drawing, handcrafts, and games. The patients had to stay in the hospital for a long time without having anything fun to do except watching TV, while kid’s natures are to run, play, and mess things up. We were bringing in a lot of fun as well as healthy interaction. I love going to the hospital and still doing the volunteer job whenever I go back home. The kids can be weak after chemotherapy so I have to figure out different ways to keep them motivated. Sometimes I simply sit with a kid and have a silent moment together. From this experience, I recognized my passion for working one-on-one with people and provide them with motivation.

Before I came to the US, I did not hear about physical therapy as a health profession. After knowing more about it, I figured this is what I would love to do and feel a strong sense of happiness as I spend more time interacting with patients and giving them the motivation to recover. 

I am grateful for the Dimensions pre-health program at Cornell helping me explore different careers as well as encouraging me to get a research doctoral degree in rehabilitation science in addition to the clinical doctorate. Learning more about different PhD programs and research projects, I am dreaming that one day I will have my own lab and be able to educate the next generations. I never thought I would become this ambitious. As my professor Craig Tepper always tells me “Hard work always pays off”, I have been inspired to work hard for what I want to achieve. If I didn’t go to Cornell, I would not be getting this amount of guidance and encouragement, and dreams would always just be dreams. I really appreciate that Cornell is giving me confidence as well as great academic support to achieve my dream.

On Thursday, we learned more about the equipment and data collected in the gait lab with Lucas, who is a mechanical engineer. He proudly told us that they have one out of fourteen accredited gait lab in the nation. He showed us how the 13 cameras were able to capture the images and create 3D motions. In the end, we had a case study on a cerebral palsy patient together. We analyzed and compared the gait patterns as well as muscle activities obtained before and after the rectus femoris transfer surgery. The patient was not able to flex the knee leading to an unbalanced pelvis while walking because the quadriceps were constantly contracting while the hamstrings were too weak. The surgeon took a part of the muscle from the quadriceps and placed them into the hamstring to improve the gait. The post-surgical gait patterns were largely improved to a near-normal gait.

Before the gait lab was founded, the ortho surgeons simply fixed whatever bones that had abnormalities. A year later, there were always new complications discovered during the follow-up. Therefore, the patients had to undergo surgeries every year on the same day which were called “birthday surgeries”. Having the gait data, doctors have a clearer understanding of what is really causing the problem and are now able to treat the patients properly and more efficiently. This is very powerful that new technologies and research could make such a big impact on treatment decisions and patient outcomes, which further encourages me to pursue a research degree.

After the lecture, I went to the Children’s annual BBQ event with other interns. 

I rocked the “Malpractice” game removing objects from the holes by using the long needles with one hand since I have been a chopsticks user since I was a little kid.
A picture with other interns together at the BBQ photo booth.  (I really don’t understand why I was wearing sunglasses.)

We also got our first free Children’s T-shirts with superheroes on the backs. Even though we are not superheroes yet, we will all be in the future!


Penny (Yin) Peng '21

Penny is a biochemistry and molecular biology major with minors in chemistry and psychology from Guangzhou, China.