Dr. Serena Hu has been an orthopedic surgeon at UCSF Medical Center since 1991. Her research interests include the prediction and prevention of metastatic fractures of the spine that could lead to paralysis; disc degeneration and its potential prevention or reversal. Her clinical interests include prevention of complications and treatment of adult scoliosis.
Are there any exciting new developments in orthopedic surgery?
There's a lot of research being done on potentially using tissue regeneration to help with ligament repair. We're trying to stay on the forefront of using cells to create new tissue and help the body repair itself. There are pilot studies being done now in patients. It might be five, possibly 10 years down the line.
How did you wind up in medicine?
I was always told that I should be a doctor because my handwriting was so sloppy. I did well in school, I liked the sciences and I liked helping people. It seemed like a good use of my skills and interests.
What attracted me to surgery is that it's hands-on — it's very outcome-oriented. If you have a problem, you fix it. And when I did my surgical rotations, the orthopedic surgery rotation seemed to make the most sense — the mechanical aspects of it really made sense to me.
Surgery has traditionally been a male holdout in medicine. Do you think it's getting easier for women to become surgeons?
Back when I was a medical student it wasn't very common. Nowadays — well, general surgery at UCSF has a female chairperson and the highest proportion of women surgeons in the country.
I think it's a good time to be a woman interested in surgical specialties. It's not questioned as much — for the most part, it's encouraged.
What would you be doing if you weren't in medicine?
I'd be a journalist and writer. That's what I was going to do if didn't get into medical school — I was going to write the great American novel. I may still do it!
What are some of your most rewarding moments, professionally?
Seeing patients after their surgery and hearing, 'doctor you changed my life.' Maybe they couldn't walk before and now they can, or they were in a great deal of pain and now they have none. The best patients are just nice people who want to feel better — that's why we're all in this.
I also enjoy treating patients who have seen a few doctors and haven't been able to figure out what the problem is and how to fix it. It's like putting together a puzzle. When you piece together your experience and all the knowledge you've gained handling lots of routine cases and more complex cases, and individualize it for someone, that's rewarding.
What are some of the most frustrating moments?
Dealing with insurance. I have a patient now who's in the hospital between two stages of surgery, and the second stage of surgery has been denied. I'm looking at the denial and wondering, what are they thinking? The people who are the gatekeepers for care don't have the background to make these decisions.
What do you like to do with your (limited) free time?
I have two kids and a husband. My favorite thing to do in the winter is go skiing with them, and in springtime, I'm a soccer mom on weekends. When you don't have much spare time, you spend it with the people you care about.
Sometimes I try to get some exercise other than standing in the operating room, which doesn't really count.
What's the best part about practicing at UCSF?
The collaboration — everything from patient care to research is very team-oriented. I can call the anesthesiologist about a patient with a complicated case and say, here's the situation, what would be safe? Or I can call colleagues asking for a second set of eyes on a particular case. The same goes for research. All the different fields strengthen and expand each other.
Interviewed by Sierra Tzoore
Photo by Mark Estes