Plastic surgeon, Docent Anne Saarikko: “The international experiences gained during studies have permanently shaped my thinking."

A new technique for cancer surgery, whose development Docent Anne Saarikko, plastic surgeon and University of Helsinki alumna, contributed to, eventually ended up in the Grey’s Anatomy television series. One of the key factors in her career has been the support for internationalisation received during her studies.

“We developed the technique, but it was popularised by doctor Mark Sloan.”

This is roughly how plastic surgeon Anne Saarikko has, in international circumstances, introduced a new operative technique related to breast cancer surgery, in whose development she was involved at the end of the 2010s.

The insightful element of the new technique was the combination of two surgeries: breast reconstruction and lymph node transplantation.

Until then, only the breast but not the lymphatic tissue removed had been reconstructed for cancer patients in corrective surgery, causing adverse swelling in their hands and arms as a result. There were no curative therapies.

Saarikko’s comment is tinged with humour. Mark Sloan is a fictional surgeon in the Grey’s Anatomy medical drama television series.

After a Finnish research group was the first in the world to publish research on the novel technique in 2012, it attracted a lot of attention, also in the United States.

The technique also ended up in Grey’s Anatomy, where surgeon Mark Sloan was already using it in clinical operations, even though there were scholarly publications about it in connection to only about 40 patients.

“In real life, this would certainly not have been possible,” a bemused Anne Saarikko says.

“It was still an entirely experimental procedure.”

Even insurance companies from around the world started asking about it. A patient wanted this specific surgery, should the insurance cover it?

“I was pretty confused. I wondered whether this is how the world works,” Saarikko says.

“It’s a pretty funny story about the popularisation of science and research.”

A novel technical solution would not have come about without international networking

Since then, the breast cancer surgery technique has become increasingly common globally in real life.

Today, Saarikko serves as a docent in plastic surgery at the University of Helsinki. In addition, she works as a Head of Department at paediatric plastic surgery in paediatric plastic surgery at the HUS Helsinki University Hospital.

Her career as a doctor was influenced by a childhood experience. At the age of 12, Saarikko suffered a spleen injury and had to spend a week at the hospital.

“While all the other children wanted to get out of there, I found it a truly fascinating place. That week lit the flame for becoming a doctor and a surgeon.”

Right after general upper secondary school, Saarikko was admitted to study medicine at the University of Helsinki. She quickly progressed to writing her doctoral thesis and was invited to a group headed by Academy of Finland Professor Kari Alitalo, which focuses on top-level cancer research.

Saarikko was interested in specialising in plastic surgery due to the rapid development of the field.

“It’s a really creative surgical field that is still evolving.”

That the professor and student community encouraged internationalisation from the start was significant for her career. Already as a junior researcher, Saarikko had the opportunity to take courses and attend conferences at top universities in Europe and the United States.

“It really opened up the world in a way that has permanently shaped my thinking.”

At Harvard, for example, Saarikko listened to the professors’ advice on how to build a career.

“You have to identify something that you wish to develop and then invest everything in it. And ignore what others are saying. Focusing makes it possible to achieve top-level results.”

Even the technique emulated in Grey’s Anatomy would not have been born without international networks.

In her thirties, Saarikko met, at a conference held in Buenos Aires, a French surgeon who had developed a new operative technique for transferring lymph node tissue. After the trip, Saarikko had the chance in 2006 to follow the surgeon’s work in an operating theatre in Paris and learn.

This sparked off the idea of combining lymph node transplantation with corrective breast surgery.

“It’s really important for surgeons to cooperate with one another, also in a multiprofessional manner,” Saarikko says.

“Having travelled in different countries, I’ve come to see that we too should set the sky as our only limit. We should realise that everything is possible in Finland as well. We are incredibly good at a lot of things.”

A link to the University matters, as a great deal of research is needed to develop therapies

Since 2012, Anne Saarikko has been concentrating entirely on paediatric cleft lip and palate plastic surgery.

“Paediatric plastic surgeons assume the care of newborns who have their entire lives ahead of them. It’s a big deal,” Saarikko says.

“It’s humbling, and you have to be a perfectionist, you have to concentrate.”

At the university hospital, the work involves continual research and development.

“At the moment, I consider being up to date on developments taking place elsewhere perhaps the most important thing in my practical work. Not repeating the work of others, but creating something new.”

Finnish society also deserves praise. Saarikko wishes to highlight the significance of equal opportunity, thanks to which anyone can advance to the top.

“I think this Finnish model is really grand. I come from a working-class family. My father is a lorry driver and my mother a storeroom worker. There are no doctors in my immediate family,” Saarikko says.

“In many other countries, an academic career would not have been possible from such a starting point. This is a wonderful society that we can be proud of.”

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