Alexandra Cancio-Bello, inaugural class member of the NFL’s Diversity in Sports Medicine Pipeline Initiative

How did you become part of the NFL Diversity in Sports Medicine Pipeline Initiative?

I received an email from Howard University saying they are working with the NFL for a one-time orthopedic rotation. What’s the best way to learn orthopedics other than soccer? So I applied and they told me I was accepted into the program. I was so excited to learn that I would be with the New York Giants because they are affiliated with the Hospital for Special Surgery, the nation’s premier orthopedic surgery hospital. I also found out that with Dr. Scott Rodeo and Dr. Samuel Taylor who are titans in this field. It’s a great thing 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 definitely had to do some research before starting my rotation. I would say my time with the Giants was my first real football experience and it’s the best you can get.

What did you do and/or learn during the month-long rotation?

Giants Assistant Athletic Coach Mike Baum has an incredible rotation schedule in place. A few days were split 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 would get to the training center at the injury clinic at about 7am. I was there with dr. Rodeo, Dr. Taylor, head athletic trainer Ronnie Barnes, the coaches and the players. That’s where I learned the most. In the afternoon I went to the hospital to observe an operation.

I was at the training center on Tuesdays and Thursdays to practice. People usually see injuries in a game, but during training you could see why those injuries happened. As I watched the players drill and train, I realized why the defensive line has so many elbow injuries, and it could be because they make many of the same moves when blocking.

I also attended three games including the Giants vs. Jacksonville game. Traveling with the team was a great experience.

That’s good to hear. What were some of your biggest takeaways from the rotation?

It really takes a team to provide the best care to these athletes to keep them healthy and staying on the field. There is so much at stake and the players are under so much pressure. In a normal sports medicine rotation, you might tell a patient to relax for a few weeks and slowly return to normal. This is not the case with the players. They came back every day and did therapy, which isn’t always fun, but they have so much determination. Everyone from the doctor to the coach plays such a big part in the whole process. Doctors usually refer patients to physical therapy, but it was really cool to see how all the steps of recovery unfold and how important each step is. The rehab aspect was also a big plus because I had never been exposed to it.

Looking back, was there anything that surprised you?

I was surprised how welcoming everyone was. It was really refreshing. Orthopedic surgery is a very male-dominated field, as is the NFL, where all players are male. But they wanted me to be there and asked questions about school and residency. 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 has to be the games. The intensity is something I’ve never experienced before and it’s hard to describe. When you’re on the sidelines with the team, you can feel their full concentration, and so do the coaches and staff. There’s one goal, and that’s to win – and keep everyone sane. But I would say my favorite moment was the Giants-Texans game. The players punched me when they came off the field. It was a great feeling to be part of the team.

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

Mentoring is so important. When I started medical school, I thought the most important thing was how well I did in class and how well I did on the board—basically, how hard you work. But I’ve learned that in highly competitive fields like orthopedics, where maybe 1,000 people are applying for seven residencies, it’s all about who you know, connections and mentoring. Nobody in my family is a doctor, so finding mentors can be difficult. I worked hard to find her.

When the pandemic hit, I turned to Dr. Robin West, who was then team doctor for the Washington Commanders. She was the first orthopedist I saw in the DMV area so I emailed her. She met me on Zoom, talked to me about the field, gave me good advice, and wrote me a recommendation for a research position at the Mayo Clinic. She was very helpful.

Then I did a research year at the Mayo Clinic not only to gain experience but also to build mentorship. There I had with Dr. Brandon Yuan, Dr. Jonathan Barlow and Dr. Krystin Hidden collaborated. They were amazing and I learned the importance of empowering a mentee. That was something I hadn’t experienced until I went there, and it probably helped get that opportunity with the Giants. Then it was incredible, Dr. Rodeo and Dr. to meet Taylor. Interview invitations for the residency came out earlier this week, and Dr. Rodeo called me to see if he could reach the interviewers. He wanted to tell you a little more about me before I meet you. It’s a big deal and I’m very fortunate to have these mentors. I look forward to being able to do the same for others.

Again, there aren’t many women in orthopedic surgery. I’ve been told by a lot of people who don’t know me or haven’t worked with me – they only see me – that I should consider something else. Hearing this over and over again, even though they’ve never seen me in a medical setting, can be heartbreaking. I don’t necessarily need people to validate what I’m capable of, but it feels good to meet people who are respected in the industry and give you support and confidence that you belong. It means a lot to me that they care about me.

Prior to this rotation, had you considered working in professional sports as an orthopedic career option?

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

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