Orthopaedic surgeon Obafunto Abimbola, MD, MPH, continues fellowship while looking back on five-year residency program at UF COMJ.
There is nothing like nagging pain or joint discomfort that seems to come out of nowhere and progressively worsen. Knee and hip issues can be particularly troublesome, especially for adults approaching their golden years.
Obafunto Abimbola, MD, MPH, has consulted with scores of patients who seek comfort and desire to resume the activities and hobbies that bring them joy. Oftentimes, surgery is necessary.
“Patients come in anxious, worried and in a lot of pain. They want answers and relief,” said Abimbola, an orthopaedic surgeon who trained at the University of Florida College of Medicine – Jacksonville. “I enjoy seeing them come back for follow-ups, happier and feeling good. There’s just something about taking a person from what they consider a low moment in their life and getting them back to a better place.”
Those special instances have inspired and motivated Abimbola over the past several years, as she’s helped patients regain comfort and mobility while she continued to learn and hone her skills as an orthopaedic surgeon.
Abimbola recently completed UF COMJ’s five-year orthopaedic surgery residency program, which culminated with a graduation ceremony on the UF Health Jacksonville campus. As she continues a fellowship in hip and knee reconstruction, she looks back on her personal, educational and medical journey so far, most notably the UF COMJ training experience that has yielded so much growth.
Abimbola, a first-generation Nigerian-American, was born and raised in Greensboro, North Carolina. When she was young, her parents tried to steer her toward one of three occupations they said would make them proud — a lawyer, medical doctor or engineer.
Abimbola didn’t think she’d be interested in medicine and refuted the other two fields out of rebellion. She figured she would pursue “something completely left-field,” like visual art or marine biology.
“I took some art classes in high school. I enjoyed it as a hobby, but not enough to invest all of my time and effort into it,” Abimbola said. When she explored marine biology, she quickly realized that wasn’t the path to take, either.
“I didn’t like zoology at all,” she said, reflecting on her coursework. “I really enjoyed human biology and anatomy, though. And I almost hated myself a little bit for it. But at least I chose it instead of my parents choosing it for me.”
Abimbola attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she earned a degree in exercise and sport science, with a specialization in athletic training.
Envision working for high-profile professional sports teams, traveling often and visiting some of the world’s most notable cities and sports stadiums, while tending to superstar athletes. That could have been Abimbola’s career as an athletic trainer.
“There are people who love being on the sidelines at games and at practices,” she said. “But for me, the fulfillment and reward from that was minimal. I enjoyed the clinical aspect of the job, though. It was through that experience I knew for sure I wanted to attend medical school.”
Abimbola returned to UNC Chapel Hill for medical school. A special summer program after her first year allowed her to shadow an orthopaedic surgeon in New York. She rotated with that same surgeon during her final year. A career in orthopaedic surgery became the plan.
Choosing UF COMJ
UF COMJ was one of Abimbola’s top choices for orthopaedic surgery residency. She said it was the most diverse program of all the ones for which she interviewed. “In terms of gender and ethnic diversity, it was impressive for an orthopaedic surgery program to look like that. To me, that was very welcoming,” she said.
Abimbola also sensed strong camaraderie among the resident physicians she met at the time. She said they seemed proud of their program and work, and happy to be at UF Health. She experienced that energy firsthand once she began training.
“I saw UF Health as a place I could thrive and grow as a surgeon,” Abimbola said. “The other surgeons I trained with had a big hand in that. From an educational standpoint, we all fed off each other and invested in each other’s success.”
Abimbola describes the orthopaedic surgery residency program as challenging and dynamic, featuring a host of hands-on — and often intense — clinical rotations during each of the five years. Some of those rotations include plastic surgery and vascular surgery in the first year, and pediatric orthopaedics, adult reconstruction and foot and ankle in subsequent years.
With UF Health Jacksonville having the only adult and pediatric Level I trauma center in the region, residents also gain plenty of experience in trauma care. Highway collisions, gunshots, falls and other accidents are some of the reasons patients are rushed to UF Health TraumaOne, which has the infrastructure and personnel to effectively and efficiently handle mass casualty events.
Abimbola thinks back to her 12-week trauma rotation, which included multiple amputations and a host of other surgeries. “We cared for all musculoskeletal issues, and a lot of them involved some type of trauma,” she said. “There are a lot of very well-trained trauma specialists at UF Health, which benefited us because we received great training under them.”
Abimbola also gained valuable experience in communicating with trauma patients, who she says “are at a low moment, having what’s likely the worst day of their life. Then they see your face and expect you to put them back to where they were earlier that day.”
Unfortunately, that can’t always happen. Some people wind up losing a limb.
“Your situation has changed and we have to get you to your new baseline,” Abimbola says, recounting the type of message she has delivered to amputees. “Your leg is gone. It couldn’t be saved.”
She sighs and pauses while reliving these exchanges, recalling the patients’ devastation and remembering how she aims to express empathy and compassion in those moments, yet maintain a calm and confident professional demeanor.
“Patients don’t like to hear that news and they sometimes don’t fully understand what has happened,” she said. “It’s a lot to deal with. But as their physician, I’m here to help them along this difficult journey.”
Challenges and joys
Between surgeries, patient consultations and didactic sessions, Abimbola’s days often ran from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and sometimes later. Time management was key.
“The days were long. The stakes were higher,” she said. “The time allocated for learning outside the clinical environment was limited, but you still had to push yourself. It wasn’t easy.”
Amid the challenges, Abimbola found joy in her patients — particularly the ones requiring joint reconstruction or replacement, her chief interest. She fondly remembers patients who wished to walk and run again, or simply engage in old hobbies such as antique shopping.
“Giving someone their mobility and comfort back is amazing. It’s a tangible endpoint,” Abimbola said. “I enjoy seeing tears of joy and happiness. It’s reinforcement that you’ve helped somebody and that the grind of residency is all worth it.”
Paul Dougherty, MD, a professor and chair of orthopaedic surgery and rehabilitation at UF COMJ, says Abimbola is an outstanding doctor who exemplifies many of the ideals department members strive to embody in their clinical practices.
“Dr. Abimbola is a thoughtful, caring and committed orthopaedic surgeon who treats every patient with compassion,” said Dougherty, who also served as residency program director during Abimbola’s final two years. “Her thoughtful diagnoses and treatment plans are centered on what is best for the patient. She is the type of person all patients want and all institutions seek to recruit.”
As an elective during her residency, Abimbola spent two weeks in Kenya working as an attending physician at a mission hospital in the town of Bomet. She worked alongside local medical residents, guiding many of them through challenging surgeries. She chose Kenya because she wanted to assist a developing country, where resources are extremely limited, yet ailments and the need for surgery are equal to that of first-world nations.
“Having access to health care should be a commonality among all people and not just something for the privileged,” she said. “I think it’s important to fight for those who are easily forgotten and overlooked.”
Abimbola intends to hold tight to her interest in international health, regardless of where she practices. Since completing her residency, she has begun a fellowship in knee and hip reconstruction at Cape Cod Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine in Massachusetts. She’s still weighing her options of academic or private practice afterward.
Remember, at one point, Abimbola thought she might become an athletic trainer, a visual artist or even a marine biologist. Through the journey, she found her true calling. She is doing what she loves and has gained the experience and skills that make her a highly sought-after orthopaedic surgeon.
She is fulfilling her dream. Her loved ones are proud and her patients are healthier and happier.
Visit hscj.ufl.edu/orthopaedic-surgery/residency to learn more about the orthopaedic surgery residency program at UF COMJ.
Chair, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and Rehabilitation; Program Director, Orthopaedic Surgery Residency