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Faculty Five: Carrie Swigart, MD

September 13, 2019
by Matt O'Rourke

What is your Orthopaedic subspecialty?

Hand surgery.

 Why did you go into that subspecialty?

During your medical education, there are several branch points. Some people know exactly what they want to do from the beginning and others don’t know what they want and try a bunch of different things. I came to medical school with a mechanical engineering background. I was going to build prosthetic limbs, so orthopaedics was in the background, but not consciously. The first decision was, am I going into a medical field or surgical field? Most decide one or the other fairly early in medical school.

I was definitely going to be a surgeon from the get-go. I tried a couple different kinds of surgery and for me, I just gravitated towards like-minded people. Orthopaedics is very mechanical and it fit all together with the mechanical engineering background. I didn’t know I was going to be a hand surgeon, but I did know I just liked Orthopaedics.

 I had tried everything and got some very good advice from a mentor when I was a resident and he said “You have to think about what you like now but also what your future is going to be.” It was a decision beyond the work, but also who your colleagues were going to be and the types of patients I’d see in the office. It was about who you were going to be hanging out with for the rest of your career, so when I thought about all of these things, it fit. I like the breadth of patients you see: it’s not just the young athlete and the aging arthritic patient. You see both, children, a variety of pathologies. It’s a limited anatomic area, but not limited by the types of problems you encounter and treat.

What is the best part about your clinical practice?

I know it sounds trite, but I like it when someone walks into the office with a problem – maybe they’ve seen someone about it or maybe not –  but they have no idea why they’re having their symptoms. For me, it’s gratifying to help them understand what they have and that I can help them with an intervention. Sometimes that’s just therapy or education about what it is. Or it could be surgery that can help them. It’s taking a very discrete problem, identifying what it is, and sometimes it’s just validation for the patient that “Yes, this is actually a problem and I’m not crazy.” That remains rewarding to me.

What makes Yale a unique place for patients to come get treatment? 

Any time you come to an academic physician, in general there’s the sense they’re giving it a little more thought. They’re willing to address the problem and it’s not just cookie-cutter solutions. It’s partly because the physician might give it a little more thought, beyond the “it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and therefore, must be a duck” scenario.

 For us, education is important. It’s not just for the residents and the medical students: we educate our patients. That’s the difference and patients will tell me that’s the difference. I might spend five to ten minutes with a patient and they’ll tell me “You told me more about what’s going on than anyone else I’ve ever seen.” I think it’s empowering for them to know what they have and to at least have an idea about what’s going on. I think that’s just an experience that is more prevalent here than in the community.

What’s advice you give to medical students or residents?

I often get asked about being a woman in orthopaedics. It’s different than when I started where you were labeled as the “woman surgeon.” It’s changing now. I tell women looking to get into this field that no matter the field they decide, they’re going to run into people who will challenge them. It’s not about how strong you are or how much you can bench-press as a colleague. It’s about how you approach situations and if you can do it smarter. Look for ways to handle the same old situations differently and you’ll stand out.

Tell me something you enjoy doing when you’re not in the clinics or surgery.

I had been training for the New Haven Road Race Half Marathon, but otherwise I really like gardening.


Submitted by Matt O'Rourke on September 13, 2019