Lainey Bukowiec knew she had found her niche, one very early morning, after one very long day.
That long day was on her orthopedics rotation, with a series of long cases in a row – even one eight-hour procedure. It meant perhaps 14 hours on her feet without any breaks. But time flew by, and when she finally grabbed dinner shortly before midnight, she had a realization. She was exhausted, sure – but she was also elated.
The next morning she woke up at 4 AM to go back into work and found herself… utterly excited to go back in and do it all over again.
“I figured if I was that excited for more after the taxing day I just had, then this is probably something I can do the rest of my life,” said Bukowiec. “The excitement still hasn’t worn out.”
Bukowiec is a boundlessly energetic medical student who is poised to graduate with an exceptional track record of academic accomplishments. But most of all, she anticipates getting people walking and moving again in the years to come.
“Lainey is a great student; one of many star students here at the School,” said Jeffrey Boscamp, M.D., the interim dean of the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine. “But she also has the passion for compassionate care which makes the best doctors of the future.”
FINDING A PATH
Bukowiec, one of the top achievers in the inaugural class for the medical school, did not always know she would pursue a medical career, like many of her peers. She was interested in science when she arrived at Johns Hopkins for her undergraduate years, majoring in cognitive science and behavioral biology.
But it was an easy, one-credit class which set her on her true path. The pass/fail course was at the Kennedy Krieger Institute working with children with brain disorders, musculoskeletal disorders, and spinal injuries. The objective was to help the children via play therapy – the students assisted the children playing the piano, drawing, connecting the dots, coloring, fine-motor skills, and with other activities.
For the long-time nanny of little children, she had immediately discovered a calling: compassionate care.
“After this one experience, I went pre-med,” she said. “It was rewarding, to say the least.”
A new medical school was taking shape right in her hometown of Nutley, New Jersey, as she finished her undergraduate career. And the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine welcomed her with open arms – and it’s been a career trajectory which has enabled her to find her own way.
She’s made the most of the opportunities in a school connected to a large health network. She’s worked on a number of research projects through Hackensack University Medical Center, including those for real-time COVID-19 literature research at the early peaks of the pandemic; neurological clinical research projects; and also trials including one to find ways to reduce opioid use to mitigate pain for patients after surgery. She’s already published in some journals.
During her rotations, she continually found new things to pique her professional interest. She came into her medical school years thinking she might do pediatrics. Then she found huge interest in general psychiatry during her stint in that specialty.
But then there was the fascination she found with general surgery – to see the immediate problem-solving progress of procedures. So Bukowiec signed up for a number of surgical electives for her third and fourth years of school.
But the Orthopedics rotation was the one she clicked immediately with – as she found out after that one particularly long day during her rotation.
“Three or four days into my Ortho elective, I canceled the rest of my electives,” she said. “I just knew. I felt fully confident.”
SPORTS, AND KIDS
Orthopedics makes sense, too, since it felt like a “team” environment – one she was very familiar with from her upbringing.
“They felt like a family – it felt very natural to me,” said Bukowiec.
Bukowiec grew up in a very athletic, sports-driven home; one of her mothers was captain of the 1980 Olympic U.S. Women’s Basketball team, and the other was a star player for the Rutgers University team for a number of years. But among her whole family (she also has one brother), she was the one who valued academics even more highly than athletics.
“I remember the whole family out there, calling out to me, ‘Come on, let’s shoot around,’ while I was inside reading my book,” she said. “I just always found the time to really want to learn something more.”
Even before that time in the Baltimore institute, Bukowiec was always working with children. She was a nanny for a number of years as a teenager and younger adult, and she continues to coach youth basketball to this day.
THE VALUE OF A NEW SCHOOL
Earning a medical degree in her hometown was especially rewarding – but not just because she was just down the road from her parents. It was also the new institution itself which made the experience worthwhile, bringing with it the relationships and connections unique to a place that is just writing its unique story now.
“Going to a new program, you do have a few bumps in the road – but all of them were made very tolerable by the amount of support and outreach from the staff and leadership and faculty,” she said. “Dean Stanton was a big part of that – she was such a wonderful, beautiful person.
“Our school has such a personal feel to it,” Bukowiec added. “I can’t say enough good things.”
The most rewarding part of it was interacting with these people on a familiar, regular basis, especially in the clinical setting. The relationship with her patient she made through the Human Dimension was another landmark experience – utterly “eye opening,” as she explained.
“I wouldn’t trade my medical school experience for anything in the world,” she said. “Working with patients is so rewarding.”
Match Day marks a time of great unknowns for her, as it does for most medical students. Bukowiec is hopeful she will match at a top-notch institution. It might bring her away from her Nutley home, but she is eager to achieve the most she can at any one of the many places she interviewed during the process.
Ultimately, she sees herself finding her way in orthopedic surgery – likely, that would involve pediatric orthopedics, as she experienced during an away rotation at Columbia University. But she still has time to find out which niche she will find herself in.
Research is another passion she intends to follow. She finds herself interested in topics like the mind-body connection, especially as it relates to pain; artificial intelligence and the way it could be incorporated into clinical care; and also helping to promote the role of women in her field.
On this last point, she’s well aware of how much the orthopedic surgery specialty leans in favor of males currently. But during the Columbia rotation she was thrilled to see numerous female surgeons who were unbelievably supportive to her – as well as being consummate professionals. She’d like to pay it forward, in the same way, someday.
“I would love to be like them, some day,” she said.