Dr. Wiley Nifong makes opening remarks before Honors College students Zachary Elliott and Aenia Amin present case studies as part of their summer internship at the East Carolina Heart Institute. (Photos by Jessica Nottingham)

ECU Honors College students intern with robotic surgery team

Aug. 27, 2015

By Jessica Nottingham
For ECU News Services

Every day had something new in store for two Honors College students who spent their summer working with East Carolina University’s leaders in robotic heart surgery.

Aenia Amin and Zachary Elliott, two recipients of the 2015 East Carolina Heart Institute (ECHI) Robotic Surgery Internship, were able to observe robotic heart valve replacements, lobectomies and neonatal heart procedures, among others. The internship is a competitive program that exposes undergraduate pre-medical students to laboratory research methods, surgical treatments and an integrated cardiovascular disease program.
ECU Honors College student Zachary Elliott completes a summer internship at ECHI by presenting a case study on heart valve replacement using medical imaging technology.

The interns rotated between the operating room and clinic throughout the six-week program. In the operating room, the days began with case conferences and observation of robotic and non-robotic surgical procedures.

“No two cases were alike in the operating room,” said Elliott, who is a sophomore neuroscience and public health double major and an early assurance in medicine award recipient. “Some days, a rare operation would show up, for example, an 8-month-old (infant) requiring a clot removal from around his heart.”

Getting a glimpse into the world of medical technology, the students learned that it’s ever-changing and will likely be a large influence during their careers as surgeons or healthcare providers.

“We witnessed training of new physicians on various robotic skills, the robotic device (Da Vinci SI surgical system) in action and observed minimally-invasive ‘robotically-assisted’ procedures,” said Amin, a junior triple major in neuroscience, psychology and Hispanic studies. “The capabilities of the robotic devices were astounding, and I can't wait to see what the future holds for robotic surgery and for medicine.”

Days in the clinic were spent observing the relationship between surgeons and their patients and staff, reading various scans and X-rays and learning more about each patient’s anatomy and conditions, according to Amin.
ECU Honors College student Aenia Amin demonstrates the daVinci Si robotic surgery system in the ECHI Robotics Lab.

“It was neat seeing the full circle from pre- to post-operative visits for several patients, and it allowed us to experience what physicians experience on a larger scale. Overall, this was a very enriching, satisfying and enjoyable experience.”

The program is supervised by Dr. Wiley Nifong, an internationally recognized surgeon who helped pioneer robotic and minimally invasive cardiac surgery and values the importance of early medical experience. “We do this program every year to give students an opportunity to get into the hospital early,” said Nifong.

“Dr. Wiley Nifong and the rest of the surgeons were some of the most kind-hearted and enthusiastic people I have had the pleasure of being around,” said Elliott. “They would always take the time to explain the procedure, show me the anatomy of the patient and thoroughly answer any questions.”

To cap off the internship, Amin and Elliott selected and presented case studies that involved patients with complex social and medical histories.

“I chose my case because the patient has extensive drug use and medical conditions,” said Elliott. Amin’s case study involved a patient who had a history of homelessness, which had an impact on the patient’s ability to receive consistent professional healthcare. The cases exposed the interns to the intersection of medicine and social interactions that affect treatment planning and post-op care, said Nifong.

Each year, two ECU Honors College students and two N.C. State Park Scholars are selected to participate in the six-week internship which includes a $1,000 stipend.

“I know from this experience that there is nothing I would rather do with my life other than surgery,” said Elliott.

Elliott, a D.H. Conley High School graduate, is the son of Scott and Tammy Elliott of Winterville. Amin is the daughter of Drs. Saad and Sumayya Amin of Greensboro. She is a graduate of Northern Guilford High School.