When Abi Recktenwald graduates from the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, she will officially start a career she never imagined possible thanks to a combination of hard work, skill, and a strong faculty support system.

Going into her third year, Recktenwald had a wide range of interests across medicine and surgery. However, on her pediatric rotation early that year, she encountered a child who needed a complex plastic surgery procedure to cover a skin defect. It was through the experience she realized plastic surgery was her calling.

“It’s a very meaningful field that you get a lot from, and I just really fell in love with it,” Recktenwald said.

When she realized this dream and officially made the choice to switch, she didn’t have much experience in surgery.

Then COVID-19 hit.

Recktenwald rotated in surgery during the last block of her third year (April/May 2020), then completed a surgery clerkship that summer. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than half of her clerkship was virtual, with only four clinical weeks in June before starting fourth year.

Recktenwald was aware that a surgical residency and career would be difficult, especially with her late start to pursuing it. She approached Cortney Lee, MD, clerkship director and associate professor of surgery, to inquire if this career would be a good fit for her. They discussed some of the nuances of succeeding in the role of a surgeon and a mom (Recktenwald’s child was less than a year old at the time.)

Dr. Lee said it was clear to her that Recktenwald understood the demands of both and would be able to handle the pull-and-tug of these dual roles.

“During our first conversation, there was no doubt that Abi had the mentality, endurance, and drive to become a successful surgeon,” Dr. Lee said. “As clerkship director I interact in some way with every medical student as they pass through their surgery clerkship. We have many fabulous students at UK – but some stand out. And when one of those standout students chooses your field, it is exciting while also humbling. It is our job to guide and inform students as they make the important decision for a career field.

“Abi got it, and she clearly had the passion to do it.”

Recktenwald said the great female mentorship she had through her four years at the UK College of Medicine was crucial to keeping her on track. Jamie Ward, coordinator for general surgery, kept her informed about upcoming meet-and-greets, programming, and other resources. The College of Medicine student affairs team, including Michelle Lineberry, EdD, and Berry Seelbach, MD, helped Recktenwald with scheduling when she became pregnant her second year of medical school. And in her third year, when she questioned whether a career as a surgeon was the lifestyle that suited her, Lesley Wong, MD, plastic surgery program director and mentor for her medical school research course, “was supportive every step of the way.”

Now with four years of medical school behind her, Recktenwald is prepared to take on her next challenge – residency – so she can serve as a role model for her now 21-month-old son. She will complete this step in the plastic surgery program at the University of Kentucky.

“After her fourth-year rotation with plastic surgery, we realized she is the kind of resident we want to train: compassionate, bright, and hard-working,” Dr. Wong said.

In the end, Recktenwald felt lucky to have made a late career switch. From cranial facial reconstruction to breast cancer reconstruction, she sees her potential to make a big difference in patients’ lives as a plastic surgeon.

Recktenwald keeps at heart the words from one of her mentors, Dr. Lee, who reminded her that surgeons take an oath to not harm people, but by the definition of surgery you are first harming people. So it’s important to remember that for future patients, the ultimate goal is to help them live a healthier life in optimal form and function.

“You hear that you learned so much in medical school, but the real learning comes in residency,” Recktenwald said of her next step. “So I just want to learn how to be a doctor, and most of all, I want to be safe for my patients.”

Proofs-6 -2.jpg