Next Woman Up: Alexandra Cancio-Bello, inaugural class member of the NFL Diversity in Sports Medicine Pipeline Initiative

Next Woman Up: Alexandra Cancio-Bello, inaugural class member of the NFL Diversity in Sports Medicine Pipeline Initiative

How did you become a member of the NFL Diversity in Sports Medicine Pipeline initiative?

I received an email from Howard University stating that they are partnering with the NFL for a once-in-a-lifetime orthopedic rotation. Otherwise, how better to learn orthopedics than football? So I applied and they told me that I had been accepted into the program. I was so excited to find out that I was going to be with the New York Giants because they are affiliated with the Hospital for Special Surgery, which is the premier orthopedic surgery hospital in the nation. I also learned that I would be working with Dr. Scott Rodeo and Dr. Samuel Taylor, who are titans in the field. It is very important to be able to work with them.

The fact that the Giants are having an incredible season this year is a bonus. I haven’t always followed football so I had to do some research before I started my rotation. I would say my time with the Giants was my first real football experience, which is the best you can have.

What are some of the things you did and/or learned during the month-long rotation?

Giants assistant coach Mike Baum has put together an incredible rotation schedule. Some days were shared between the Quest Diagnostics Training Center and the Hospital for Special Surgery. It was different every day and I was exposed to so many things. My favorite day of the week was Monday. I arrived at the training center around 7 am for the injury clinic. I was there with Dr. Rodeo, Dr. Taylor, Head Athletic Coach Ronnie Barnes, coaches and players. This is where I learned the most. Then in the afternoon, I went to the hospital to observe an operation.

I was at the training center on Tuesdays and Thursdays for training. People normally see injuries happen in a game, but it was during training that you could see why those injuries were happening. Watching the players drill and practice made me realize some things like why the defensive line has so many elbow injuries, and it could be because they do a lot of the same moves when trying to block.

I also went to three games, including the Giants game against Jacksonville. Traveling with the team was a great experience.

It’s great to hear that. What have been some of your biggest takeaways from the rotation?

It really takes a team to provide these athletes with the best care to keep them healthy and on the field. There are so many stakes and the players have so much pressure on them. In a normal sports medicine rotation, you might tell a patient to relax for a few weeks and slowly get back to normal. This is not the case with players. They came back every day and went to therapy, which isn’t always fun, but they have so much determination. Everyone from doctors to trainers plays such an important role in the whole process. Usually doctors refer patients to physical therapy, but it was really cool to see all the stages of recovery unfold and how crucial each stage is. The rehab aspect was also a big plus, as I had never been exposed to it.

When you look back, is there anything that surprised you?

I was surprised at how welcoming everyone was. It was really refreshing. Orthopedic surgery is a very male-dominated field, much like the NFL, with all players being male. But they wanted me there and asked about school and residence. They made me feel very comfortable. It was easy to build relationships with the doctors, coaches, players and even head coach Brian Daboll who was super nice and made me feel welcome.

What was your favorite moment?

It must be the games. The intensity is something I’ve never felt before, and it’s hard to describe. Being there on the sidelines with the team, you can feel their total focus, and the coaches and staff are focused as well. There’s one goal, and that’s to win – and keep everyone healthy. But I would say my favorite moment was during the Giants-Texans game. Players were punching me on the way out of the field. It was a great feeling to be part of the team.

Do you have mentors? If so, what did you learn from them?

Mentoring is so important. When I started med school, I thought the most important thing was my current performance and my board grades — basically, how hard you work. But I’ve learned that in competitive fields like orthopedics, where there might be 1,000 people applying for seven residency spots, it’s all about who you know, connections, and mentorship. No one in my family is a doctor, so it can be difficult to find mentors. I worked hard to find them.

When the pandemic hit, I contacted Dr. Robin West, who at the time was a team physician for the Washington commanders. She was the first female orthopedic surgeon I saw in the DMV area, so I emailed her. She met me on Zoom, told me about the field, gave me great advice, and wrote me a recommendation for a research position at Mayo Clinic. She was very helpful.

Then I did a year of research at the Mayo Clinic not only to gain experience but also to create a mentorship. There I had worked with Dr. Brandon Yuan, Dr. Jonathan Barlow and Dr. Krystin Hidden. They were amazing and I learned how important it is to empower a mentee. It wasn’t something I had experienced before going there, and it probably helped me get that opportunity with the Giants. Then meeting Dr. Rodeo and Dr. Taylor was amazing. The interview invitations for the residency went out earlier this week, and Dr. Rodeo called me to ask if he could contact the interviewers. He wanted to tell them a bit more about me before I met them. It’s huge, and I’m very lucky to have these mentors. I look forward to being able to do the same for others.

Again, there are not many women in orthopedic surgery. A lot of people who don’t know me or haven’t worked with me – they only see me – have told me that I should consider something else. Hearing this over and over again, even if they haven’t seen me in a medical setting, it can get to you. I don’t necessarily need people to validate what I’m capable of, but meeting people who are respected in the field and who give you support and the confidence that you belong is a good feeling. Having them by my side means a lot.

Prior to this rotation, did you consider working in professional sports as a career option for orthopedics?

I always knew it was an option, and I knew how competitive working in professional sports was, because it’s the pinnacle of sports medicine. Everyone wants that, so I wasn’t sure if that was a realistic goal for me. This program made me feel like it could be an option for me, when it was more of an idea before. This rotation has really meant a lot to me and everyone who has been a part of it.

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