B

efore surgeons had lifelike mannequins and custom models of individual patients’ hearts to practice on, they had grapes. And chicken feet.

Dr. Donald Bae, an orthopedic surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital, shared five of the low-tech training techniques surgeons relied on before the rise of 3-D printing and spooky special effects.

Chicken feet

“As recently as five to 10 years ago, we bought chicken feet from grocers in Chinatown markets and had our residents practice techniques of tendon repair by suturing chicken flexor tendons,” said Bae. The tendons in chicken feet are not easy to access, Bae said, but once a surgeon finds them, they feel a lot like human tendons. Another plus: Chicken feet are cheap.

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Drumsticks

To practice stitching together tiny blood vessels, surgeons have used chicken breasts and drumsticks procured at supermarkets. The blood vessels are small, but visible to the human eye, Bae said. The only drawback, he said: You’ll never look at chicken in the same way.

Oranges 

To practice puncturing a joint with a needle to drain fluid, surgeons have poked needles into oranges. Oranges also make a good model for practicing another technique, Bae said: checking whether a patient has compartment syndrome, where pressure builds up within a confined anatomic space. To measure this, doctors need to pierce a needle through the fascia surrounding muscles. For someone who has never done this, Bae said, an orange is a good place to start. 

Grapes

To practice cutting and stitching skin, surgeons — and even robots! — have used tiny scissors to cut the skin of grapes then sew it together again. If a grape isn’t handy, Bae said, a rubber glove will do. Unlike, say, leather, latex gloves have a thin, flimsy, delicate structure that demands the kind of precision required to suture human skin.

Sewing needles

To avoid killing so many animals for surgical practice, some surgeons in Lille, France, came up with an alternative: They had trainees practice microsurgery by passing a wire through the eyelet of two circles of sewing needles stuck into a block. The method proved to be an effective teaching technique, according to a 2011 study.

Surgeons still went on to practice on rats, but because they had acquired greater proficiency first, they didn’t have to kill as many rats to hone their surgical skills.

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