Dr. David Steinberg '76 is associate professor of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Pennsylvania. In this blog post, he reflects on career highlights, including the first pediatric double-hand transplant in the world; memorable lessons from Haverford; and the knowledge he hopes to pass onto his students.
Can you recount a memorable faculty member?
One of my favorite faculty members was my German teacher, Todd Pearson. I had no prior interest in German but I learned a lot from a great teacher – he really made the language come alive through short stories, movies, and experiencing the culture. I studied German for all four years at Haverford and then continued in college for two more years. All of this culminated in an immersion experience after my sophomore year of college when I lived and worked in Germany for three months. I spent half of that time working in the laboratories of an oil refinery, and the remainder traveling throughout the country. So many years later, many of us who took German all four years with Mr. Pearson got together and took a group picture at our 40th reunion!
What have been some highlights of your career?
The most amazing part of what I’ve been able to do has been working side-by-side with my colleague and chairman, Dr. Scott Levin, who has been the driving force behind Penn’s Hand Transplant Program. We have had three patients who needed both hands; actually, they lost all four limbs from illness, but the prosthetics for hands don’t work as well as those for legs. Through organ donation we were able to obtain forearms and hands to transplant onto these patients. Two were adults, and one was a child, 8 years old. It was the first pediatric double-hand transplant in the world.
Being able to help people get over devastating hand injuries or deal with commonplace problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome or arthritis is very gratifying. With orthopaedics, you can see results pretty quickly – it’s not like other forms of medicine, which sometimes takes years to see results. We can improve someone’s quality of life right away. One of the reasons I went into hand surgery in particular is my fascination with the anatomy and intricate functions of the hand. I get to see patients with a spectrum of conditions; trying to figure out how to best treat them is mentally stimulating. Finally, I’m not just taking care of patients, but trying to pass on my knowledge to the program’s residents and fellows.
I learned a lot from a great teacher – he really made the language come alive through short stories, movies, and experiencing the culture. Many of us who took German all four years with Mr. Pearson got together and took a group picture at our 40th reunion!
What do you hope residents and fellows at Penn can learn from you?
The most important things I can teach my residents and fellows is how to approach a patient, how to listen to them, and how to carefully examine them. They need to learn how to talk to patients and ask probing questions, which will ultimately help them guide their treatment. I tell them not to rely solely on technology, no matter how advanced it becomes. This holds true in the operating room, as well. Some of the techniques I’m using now weren’t even around when I was completing my residency. Especially as hand surgeons, we face many different types of injuries that may require different ways to approach and solve them. But it all comes back to the patient. I want to teach my students how to approach a problem – get the big picture, figure out goals, weigh risks and benefits – so they can figure out anything that comes their way.
What lessons from Haverford do you carry with you?
One of the basic things I got from my education at Haverford was a belief in lifelong learning. I loved my experience at Haverford, especially as we got into the upper grades and I could take some electives, which I found intellectually stimulating. Haverford instilled in me a passion for reading and learning that has carried through to this day. I’m still learning even now.
The other thing I learned from Haverford was not to be afraid to explore and go beyond your comfort level. Just because I was interested in science and medicine, that didn’t stop me from taking electives in things like poetry and ancient history, which I found fascinating. This practice continued in college – as a biology major, I still made time to take classes in classical music, studio art, and medieval history. I would advise students to take advantage of whatever opportunities they can, because you just don’t know what might pique your interest, and you might find some fascinating things that you never anticipated.
Dr. David Steinberg ’76 attended The Haverford School from 1970-1976. He graduated from Princeton University with a B.A. in Biology, and then received his MD from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He remained at Penn for a 5-year orthopaedic residency, including one year of basic science research studying osteoporosis as well as mechanical influences on cell growth. He continued his education with a six-month orthopaedic trauma fellowship at Cooper Medical Center, followed by a one-year hand and upper extremity microsurgery fellowship at Harvard/Massachusetts General Hospital.
He currently serves as an Associate Professor in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and the Director of the Hand & Upper Extremity Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the Acting Chief of Orthopaedics at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center. In addition to running a busy clinical and surgical practice, he enjoys teaching medical students, residents and fellows on a daily basis, as well as educating his peers at national and international conferences. He has been married to his best friend and soulmate, Lyn, for over 36 years. They have five children: Dan, Dylan, Jacob, Forest & Kate (ages 25-33), who are spread out from Seattle to the mid-Atlantic up to New England, and two wonderful grandsons.