Published: November 29, 2023
Hospital Internship Offers Rare Look at Transplant Surgery
Most people don’t ever get the chance to hold a heart in their hands.
However, allied health majors Alexandra Baker ’24 and Emma Kotelnicki ’24 did just that last summer while they worked in Lifelink’s organ donation internship at Tampa General Hospital, where the two won the Top Future Surgeon award.
They were selected for the internship along with 28 others from throughout the Southeast, some in postgraduate positions. According to TGH’s website, the hospital has performed over 13,000 transplant surgeries, placing Baker and Kotelnicki at one of the busiest transplant centers in the United States.
During the internship, Baker and Kotelnicki worked on research projects with several doctors at TGH. They performed clinical data collection and also “scrubbed in” to assist the doctors in organ transplant operations.
Whenever a surgery came up, Baker and Kotelnicki would jump at the opportunity. “It was always Emma and me; we’d be the first two to respond,” Baker said.
Baker and Kotelnicki sometimes worked separately with a surgeon or with other interns, but the best operations happened when they were working together, they said, like a medical Shaq and Kobe. They were friends before the internship, but surgery and statistics fused their bond.
“I was, like, this girl is so on the same page as me,” Kotelnicki said.
After each operation, which could take up to six and a half hours, Baker and Kotelnicki collected their research and prepared to present their findings to their peers, the surgeons involved and the “higher-ups,” as Kotelnicki called them, from Lifelink and TGH at a banquet in the Straz Center at the end of the summer.
It was at the banquet that Baker and Kotelnicki received their Top Future Surgeon awards, recognizing them as two of the most dedicated and involved students in the internship.
They won suture kits to practice stitching on artificial skin.
The two arrived at the ceremony fresh off a private plane from Alabama, where they had assisted with another operation.
The Alabama opportunity came at an unexpected time—the students had just finished an operation with a Tampa surgeon at 1 a.m., when the surgeon got a call about an organ donor in Birmingham. Unfazed, Baker asked if they could come along.
The awards ceremony was the next night, and Baker and Kotelnicki had multiple presentations throughout the event. On the way back to Tampa, the two rehearsed their presentations in whispers on the plane, trying not to wake the exhausted lead surgeon.
“We were memorizing our scripts, but we had just done two operations back-to-back. We had no sleep,” Kotelnicki recalled.
The internship with Lifelink and TGH would be rare enough in medical school, never mind undergrad, Kotelnicki said. “I went in with one of the medical students, and he had never been in an operating room,” she recalled.
Baker and Kotelnicki’s experience with the program will make them standout applicants for medical school, said Baker. “Not a lot of people can say they’ve done what we did,” she added. Another leg up: there’s a chance some of their research will get published, and “that’s a huge thing that [graduate schools] are now looking for,” Baker said.
For both students, the internship solidified and strengthened their passion for making a difference for others.
“It was the best thing in my life, ever,” Baker said. “It solidified why this is so important to me, and (helped me) see myself in the room with my hands on a heart.”
Story by Lena Malpeli '25