Dr. Kamali Thompson: From Olympics to Orthopaedics

In an interview for the ISAKOS Podcast, Dr. Stephen Lyman and Dr. Laurie Hiemstra were able to interview Olympic Fencer and Orthopaedic Surgeon, Dr. Kamali Thompson.

Q: Maybe you could tell us a little bit more about yourself!

A: When I was really young, like, I know a lot of people have aspirations to become something and if you told me when I was ten I would be an orthopedic surgeon and an Olympic fencer I would be like “That’s crazy!”, so it’s really cool to get here.

A really brief story about how I got to where I am today, fencing wise, I started fencing in high school which is pretty unusual. Fencing is one of those sports where people start when they’re like six or seven and by the time they’re in high school they’re trying to figure out what college they are gonna go to and maybe go to a couple of World Cups when they’re around thirteen, fourteen, or fifteen and I started fencing in high school. I had no idea what was going on. I had no idea you get a scholarship for fencing. My mom found out from my fencing coach that it was really good to fence and you could probably get a scholarship and might be able to get into an Ivy League school. So she said “All right. Well, I’m going to sign you up for the team and you don’t really have a choice.” so that’s why I started fencing.

After a couple of years I started in New Jersey, which is kind of the Mecca of high school fencing. After a couple of years I was really tired of these girls beating me so I found a fencing club in New York City. All of the fencers there were at minimum a national champion. We have a lot of Olympians. Two and three time Olympic medalists and they all go to top rated schools too so I think that was my opening to the Olympic world.

I got a scholarship to Temple University and I kept fencing there and after college was over I knew I wanted to go to medical school, but at the same time I didn’t really feel like I did anything so I decided to just start training for the Olympics while I was in medical school and see how it goes. This year I ended up fifth in the country. The top four people go to the Olympics and I am the first alternate. That’s really exciting, so all my hard work paid off I’m going to Tokyo in a couple of weeks!

On the orthopedic end, I always wanted to be a pediatrician. When I started fencing I actually got “Skiers Thumb” and I was really upset about it. My doctor didn’t really seem like he cared too much and I was like, “You don’t understand. I’m trying to go to the Olympics and my fingers feel that you feel like it’s about to fall off!” so it was that moment I decided I should do something in sports, but I didn’t think I would like surgery that much because I really wanted to do Pediatrics. I just happen to do my surgery elective my third year Med school and I really liked it! I picked the ortho elective because I thought it would be really interesting to see like the sports medicine side of that and on my first day my attending handed me a drill and he said “Well, put this screw in someone’s femur.” I said “This is crazy and I love all of this! So how can I become an orthopedic surgeon?”. That’s how I am a fencer and an orthopedic surgeon today.

Q: How do you think your sport prepared you for residency or do you think your sport has helped you prepare for residency.

A: Yeah definitely! Fencing is constantly testing your confidence and constantly testing your preparation. If you show up to the strip and you don’t really believe in yourself or you have not thoroughly prepared for your bout, whether it’s in practice or a video review, you’re probably gonna lose. So I feel like it’s really similar to residency where you have to come every day. You have to be ready. You have to study the night before and then, when you’re put into these situations, you have to be confident about what your preparation and your skills and your training. I think both of those things have really prepared me and some other little things here and there I’m sure will also help.

Q:  In the United States, only 6% of Orthopedic Surgeons are women. What is it like in fencing? Is it pretty equal between the sexes or is it rare?

A: It’s pretty equal, I think. In general, men events usually have a little bit more. For example, I fence saber. When I fence in women saber events we have maybe 170 or 180 people. My brother fences saber as well.  He’s on the Olympic team. He’s number four in the country, so that’s pretty exciting. He had maybe 200 people in his event so we’re pretty balanced. A little less women than men, but it’s definitley not uncommon for women to fence.

Q: You grew up in New Jersey. Can you tell us a little bit about your childhood?

A: I was born in Los Angeles, CA. We moved to New Jersey when I was in 3rd grade. I actually skipped first grade and I started school early so I’m two years younger than everybody else in my class which was really awkward at times growing up because I was just so far behind. I didn’t drive a car when I was in high school I was too young. I didn’t vote until two years into college. I have a younger brother who fences as well. Both my parents moved us to New Jersey when I was in 3rd grade. Not really expecting anything amazing out of like me or my brother, but just wanted to raise us in a really great area. We lived in a very diverse town and I think that just been so amazing for me growing up because I really enjoyed different cultures. With fencing, we traveled to all these countries and I’m really privileged to see all that. I enjoy being around a bunch of people who look like me and who don’t look like me. I love learning about other cultures.

I chose to go to our public high school and it’s just really funny that we have a fencing team because normally fencing programs are for prep schools or private schools. We’re a very normal public school and we have a hunting team and when I was in school we were top 16 in the state so we were really amazing. I think it’s been great to grow up in a place where there’s a lot of like regular people and we just end up doing really amazing things so a lot of my friends have also gone to do great things and we all just come from New Jersey.

Q: How did you figure out your time management? How did you figure out your priorities? Is that something comes naturally to you, because clearly you juggle more than most people.

A: I was always pretty decent at time management. I wasn’t really a huge procrastinator in life. I was a dancer prior to fencing, so I was pretty used to doing something after school or doing something on the weekend and then coming home and doing my homework. The same thing happened when I got to high school and started fencing. My junior year, when I joined my fencing club, I started fencing in New York City, so that was way more complicated than just going to school. I didn’t get home till 8:00 or 9:00 PM and then I still had all this work to do. I carried those principles of figuring out how to get my stuff done quickly to college and I remember my freshman year of college maybe a month and a half and I was really upset, because, I mean we’re in college, so everyone’s out. Everyone’s hanging out. Everyone is partying. Here I am, doing my homework and I was like “This is not fun. I’m not having as good time as everybody else is.” I remember calling my mom and she said “Keep staying focused. Keeping being disciplined and you’re gonna see, really quickly, it’s gonna pay off. Other people who are maybe having more fun than you, it’s gonna affect them in the long term.” I saw that by midterms.

From there I think I just had to figure out the social aspect. How can I balance it so I’m getting my work done, getting practice done, but I’m still like seeing my friends and stuff? So I kind of perfected that at the end of college. Then once I got to Med school… You know they say medical school is like drinking water out of a fire hose, and they are not lying. But, I feel like my skills were so good by that point I was just really disciplined. I schedule everything like a crazy person. It kind of just got easier from there.

Q: What are you looking forward to the most when you start residency?

A: OK, so, the real answer is seeing patients and not having to leave and say “I’m going to go get the resident.” because I am the resident. The second answer is, I’m really looking forward to my long white coat. I’m really looking forward to the food and having my meal swipes, because it wasn’t always so inconvenient to have my debit card.  I’m really excited about that.

Q: What are you most anxious about?

A: Not knowing everything. I think I have to get really comfortable not knowing everything.

Q: Do you have any mentors in fencing or orthopedics?

A: Yeah, I mean, mentorship is incredibly important and that’s definitely why I am where I am today and who I am today because I’m at my because of my mentors. It really all comes down to the same five or six people. My high school coach, number one. Who is the person who told my mom that I should start fencing. My fencing club is huge network of mentors of people who have been amazing athletes and amazing students. They’ve all gone off really great colleges and some people have gone off to Business School. I think just having these people who have gone through this before so I wasn’t the person the first person in my club to get a professional degree while I was fencing. I had mentors to reach out to. Then my mentors introduced me to my coach at Temple and she is… I love her! She started fencing when she was in high school she went on to become a two time Olympian. One of my coaches introduced me to an orthopedic surgeon who also fences. He’s the person who introduced me to sports medicine an introduce me to my research family at NYU and was a really big mentor in the beginning of my orthopedic journey.

Q: Do you have any last thoughts you’d like to share?

A: Yes, definitely! I always tell people that, I think, the best part about my story is that when things looked really bleak, the only reason I got through was because I decided to give something a try. I had no idea I was gonna be good at fencing on an international level. When I entered medical school I just decided to try it and see what happens. I know a lot of people always ask me “What’s the key to success?” and I think if you just try and please don’t give up, especially after that first failure, you just keep pushing through, I think a lot of things will workout.

Q: Do you have any words of advice you would give to young women about your journey and what it is like to actually get into orthopedics?

A: Yes! Don’t be intimidated by what seems like it might be impossible. Don’t be intimidated by any negative words that people might say. I know when I was in my rotations people would look at me and kind of say “Oh you must be in another specialty.” and I would say, “Oh, I’m actually applying for ortho.” Don’t let all those like little microaggressions get to you. Don’t be afraid if you’re interested in ortho and you’re interested in something that’s really competitive. Go for it and just figure out what you need to do to get in there. Then just get a good support system and it’s all gonna workout great.

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