Name: Peter McCunniff, MD
Profession: Orthopedic Spine Surgeon
What do you do for a living?
I help people who have pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness in their neck and arms, or back and legs. This happens when someone has pinching of their nerves or spinal cord. The brain, spinal cord, and nerves make up your “nervous system.” Your spinal cord and nerves are like the roads that your brain uses to send information to the rest of your body. For example, when you raise your hand in class there’s actually a lot of different steps that go on in your nervous system to make that happen. First, you make the decision in your brain where it organizes the plan and then sends that plan along the spinal cord, the spinal cord then uses that information in the plan to pick the correct nerves that supply your arm and allow you to raise your hand.
What type of training do you need to do your job?
It is a lot of extra school and training. The first step is getting your undergraduate degree from a college or university. In your junior year you study to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) which you will need to do well on in order to get accepted into medical school. After you graduate with your undergraduate degree in whichever area you choose (mine was Exercise Science), you then go into medical school. This is usually broken up into the first two years of mainly classroom learning and labs where you learn about all the different parts of the body. The second two years are where you go into the hospitals and are part of a team that helps to take care of patients together. This is where you get to use the information you spent the last two years learning in the classroom! It is where you really start to feel like a doctor. You will get a chance to spend time in all the different specialties in medicine such as pediatrics, surgery, neurology, internal medicine, and many more.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
I think a career in medicine is one of the few jobs where you can really make a big positive impact on someone’s life every day. You can tell when a patient is genuinely thankful for how much better you have made their life and that is a really good feeling. No job is perfect so there are things that I don’t enjoy about being a spine surgeon but those positive interactions with my patients make it worth it. I have a 3-year-old son and one of my former patients actually sends me a “Happy Birthday Cash (my son’s name)!” text on his birthday every year and that brings a huge smile to my face every time. I feel like I must have made a real positive impact if my patients from three years ago still take the time to do things like that.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be an basketball player, but I only grew to 6’3” and I hurt my knee at the end of high school. It all worked out because I ended up having to undergo orthopedic surgery to fix my knee and I wanted to help other people the same way that my surgeon helped me.
What advice would you give to a kid who wants to have a similar career?
Prioritizing your schoolwork is a must. Each step of the way from grade school to high school all the way up to medical school and residency builds on itself. It’s like building a house, the early years in grade school and high school are the foundation you need to build the rest. I don’t know many people who are able to flip a switch and change their work ethic once they get to college. There’s a ton of information to learn and very few people can look at something once and know it forever.
I think all people that go into medicine are considered “smart” in some way but what matters so much more is how hard you are willing to work. I think everyone reading this is just as smart as I am, probably more! However, I am very competitive, and I made the decision long ago that nobody was going to outwork me because that is really the only thing that you have control over. “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” Even if you don’t go into medicine, I think this is a great life lesson to learn sooner rather than later.
One fun fact NOT about your job?
I actually took a year off between graduating college and going to medical school. I taught classes on how to study and do well on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and worked a second job to save up money for a trip to Europe. I traveled around with my friend Matthias for a month to places like Germany, Spain, France, Italy, and more! There is no rule that you have to go directly from college to medical school and if I hadn’t taken the time to do that I am not sure I ever would have the opportunity to travel around to so many cool places again.