Penelope Halkiadakis didn't realize her passion for orthopedics until her first year in medical school at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.
She entered medical school thinking she would specialize in general trauma surgery because of her previous experiences working as an EMT. She first volunteered with the EMS starting her sophomore year of high school and became an EMT her freshman year of college at Stevens Institute of Technology.
Yet, that started to change during an anatomy lab in her first year of medical school. She found the anatomy of the human body to be intriguing.
"I was like, 'Oh my gosh I love bones,'" she said with a laugh.
Halkiadakis involved herself with research during her first year, joining a research group that was led by Browns Team Head Physician James Voos, MD, in his sports medicine lab. During that time, they focused their work on understanding recurrent ACL tears in their adolescent patient population. It's also the first orthopedics group she has published with in her medical career.
She felt a personal connection to their work, as she played club soccer growing up and saw a number of her peers endure injuries. She also dealt with injuries that affected her ability to play in college.
"I'm passionate about orthopedics in general," Halkiadakis said. "I think it's really important and really interesting the ability to help people regain mobility, to alleviate their pain to restore their quality of life. And whether you're working with somebody who's a high-level athlete, like an NFL player, or someone who's a weekend warrior or someone who's trying to extend their level of activity, being able to hike on the weekends and just have an active lifestyle for as long as possible. I think it's tangible, it's visible, it can change somebody's life."
Halkiadakis now is a third-year medical student at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. She has taken her passion for orthopedics and her lifelong connection to sports to another level as a member of the NFL Diversity in Sports Medicine Pipeline Initiative 2023 class.
The NFL Diversity in Sports Medicine Pipeline Initiative was first developed to encourage medical students from diverse backgrounds to consider sports medicine careers. Then, in May 2023, the NFL, the NFL Physicians Society (NFLPS) and the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society (PFATS), announced the league-wide expansion of the NFL Diversity in Sports Medicine Pipeline Initiative, providing medical students with the opportunity to complete a clinical rotation with NFL club medical staff.
"This is a great opportunity for our medical students to immerse themselves completely in a sports medicine environment to truly see the day-to-day of what the job of a team physician looks like," Voos said. "And this exposure that the Cleveland Browns have provided, and the NFL, is really second-to-none. The goal is to attract some of our best students into the field of sports medicine who may not have otherwise thought that this was a career they were interested in."
The program is now in its second year, with the goal to increase and diversify the pipeline of students interested in pursuing careers in sports medicine to help make a positive impact in the medical field, as well as diversity NFL club medical staffs over time.
Halkiadakis first heard of the initiative from Lia Logio, the Vice Dean of Medical Education at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, who shared the opportunity with third and fourth-year medical students. At first, she had her reservations about applying.
"I'm 5-foot-2. I'm a Latina. I have a tiny little voice. I was like, 'Okay, this is not me. This isn't meant for me, right?" Halkiadakis recalled. "When I was thinking orthopedics I never – even though I was joining a sports medicine lab – I was like, I'm never going to be the kind of person who's going to work at a pro, let alone, NFL football team. My parents are immigrants. When they think football, they are thinking soccer. This would never be my life. And then my friends really pushed me. They're like, 'why don't you just put your hat in the ring? Why don't you try?' So, I applied. And it's been a surreal and unforgettable experience."
Halkiadakis first found out that she was accepted in May 2023 while she was in a clinical trials class. Her rotation with the Browns officially began on Oct. 30.
Since then, she has had a multitude of experiences with the Browns. She's worked with Team Head Physician James Voos, MD, Sean Cupp, MD, and Robert Flannery, MD. She has been at the CrossCountry Mortgage campus as well as in different University Hospitals clinics with each of the doctors – similar to what the day-to-day schedule of a team physician looks like.
She's also spent time in the operating room. In each of her experiences in the operating room, in terms of MDs, she has been the only woman.
"When we think of like the numbers of women in general who are in orthopedics, and then the next layer of people who like are Latina, or Black and African American in this program, that's that extra attention to the NFL Diversity Program, thinking about how we can shape the face of medicine for the future to make sure that our medical providers reflect the population of today. And then that's also really admirable that they have that attention to making sure it's inclusive."
In her first few weeks in the rotation, Voos has been impressed with Halkiadakis.
"Penelope has done a remarkable job, and her background as a college athlete has really prepared her to jump into this environment," Voos said. "She's integrated with the team and with our healthcare staff right away, so it's been a pleasure to have her here with us for the month."
Working with each of the doctors in different capacities opened her eyes to how integrated team physicians are in the community, and the role that they play in the innovation of medicine.
It's also allowed her opportunities to ask questions of the doctors and fellows about their career journeys and gain important insight into the career path.
"That's the kind of multifaceted physician leader I want to be in the future," Halkiadakis said. "Where you're helping to drive research or helping to create a strong orthopedic program for the future while so just being a core trusted physician for your patients. So overall, it's just been a really unparalleled experience that like a medical student, even if you did a sports medicine elective elsewhere, you would never work with your pro athletes. So being able to do this is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."