Interview with Antonio Webb

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

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Journalist: Haleema Ahmed

Haleema: Hello everyone. And welcome back to SciSection. I'm Haleema, your journalist for this week and today we are delighted to have Dr. Antonio Webb, a Texas spine surgeon, YouTuber, and a highly decorated combat veteran from the US air force. Thank you, Dr. Webb for joining us today.

Antonio: Yeah. Thank you for having me. It's been you know, it's an honour.

Haleema: Absolutely. So your story is undoubtedly one of the most inspirational journeys to medicine I think I've ever heard. So could you give us a little bit of a rundown of what your childhood looked like to where you are today now as a spine surgeon based in Texas?

Antonio: Yeah, so I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana went to middle school, high school there, and,it was a really rough and challenging background where a lot of my friends, including my family members went to a prison,were either using drugs or, you know, so drugs or spent time in prison. And then,including my mother, my little sister and my brother,who have been in and out of kind of jail coming my whole life. But,I grew up in that background, you know, not knowing any doctors, not knowing any, never having met a doctor before. And it wasn't until a magnet program that I went to that got me interested in medicine. UI joined the air force at age 17 and did eight years in the air force, including a tour to Iraq in 2005 as a medic and LVN. And then after,separated from the military, it was, you know, I wanted to go to medical school. So I applied to medical school and it took me three years to get in. I took the MCAT three, three times and, eventually got into a postbac program,went to medical school at Georgetown. And then I went to, I did my residency at UT San Antonio and then a spine fellowship at Texas Back Institute. I am now in private practice,as a spine surgeon here in San Antonio, Texas.

Haleema: Absolutely. And I think you mentioned that you served overseas for quite a few years. And just from my experience, I know that serving overseas can cause a lot of lifelong trauma to some veterans. So how did your time in the military kind of kind of model your qualities as a position today and why do you think you were able to overcome some of those challenges that sometimes veterans, especially in the United States inevitably face after they serve?

Antonio: Yeah, so, you know, I think being in the military actually allowed me to mature. You know I went in very young at age 17. So most, a lot of 17 year old 18 year olds are not the most mature individuals. You know, you do have a lot of (inaudible) maturity, but I wasn't very mature at age 17. So it allowed me to grow up as a man, I was able to develop leadership skills, I think you know, being in Iraq and then in combat that allowed me to, you know, develop how to deal with resilience and also just grit in itself. My military background helped me succeed in medical school just by the rigid schedule that I had and just having a military background allowed me to be very disciplined in my studies. So I think it actually set me up for success being in the military, but yeah, you are correct. There are a lot of veterans who come back from war or separate from the military, have a hard time adjusting to society. And I actually talk about that with my struggles with that in my book also.

Haleema: And throughout your life, you mentioned that term resilience, you know, you've had to push through losing your friends and losing your family and also quite a few medical school rejections. What do you think your formula is for resilience that allowed you to just keep on pushing and pushing and ultimately find so much success?

Antonio: Yeah, I think it's important to whenever you're faced with a failure or whenever you're faced with an obstacle in life and it's these things, these things are going to happen at some points you just have, you have to know how to respond to them and how to react to them. A lot of people when they're faced with different obstacles and different challenges, they break down and they stop, well, you have to critically analyze what obstacle I'm faced against and what I'm going to do to overcome that obstacle. And that's some traits that we learned in the military when there's combat. You have to really analyze what you're being faced up against and how are you gonna, what is your plan of attack? So that's exactly what I do with every kind of challenge and every obstacle that's been thrown my way along on this path. So that's kind of how I would approach it. Just being very resilient and then being very persistent with yourself

Haleema: So you kind of mentioned that the military was a large way that you were able to mold your resilience. I don't think many of us would go off into the military. So how do you think we could embody that in our own life using some of the strategies that you might've learned throughout your years?

Antonio: Yeah, I would say, you know, just having persistence,no matter what, if you want to become a doctor, if you want to become a teacher, a lawyer, Entrepreneur,you have to be very persistent and despite any obstacles that may come your way,use those as kind of learning points or ask yourself, what can I take away from the situation that can better myself in the future? Or how can I use the situation to improve and then take it day by day, you know,try to be better than the day before and that's a very evolving process. You have to continuously self assess and ask yourself, how can you improve? How can you,you know, what can you do next to, you know, embark on your journey and your goals?

Haleema: That's very well said. And I guess, you know, you went through the military and then graduated from medical school at Georgetown. Why did you decide to go through, I guess, another million years of orthopedic surgery, residency? What was it about that specialty that really drew you compared to maybe shorter specialties?

Antonio: Yeah, so my advice to students that are trying to decide between specialties is to not choose a specialty based on the length of the residency or how hard you think the residency will be. I would suggest look - looking long term, 20 years down the line, 30 years down the line and ask yourself, what will I be happy? What specialty? Just imagine yourself, like, if you're getting up and driving to the hospital or you're doing procedures, or if you're in a clinic, you know, rounding at the hospital, what will make you happy 20 years from now and then choose your specialty based on that. And that's, you know, that, that would be my suggestion. I wouldn't choose a specialty based on how complex you think or how challenging it will be. But for me, Orthopedics, I love working with my hands. I love the reconstructive aspect of it. You know, a patient comes in with a hip fracture or a distal radius fracture, or, you know, an infection in their spine. You know, I can do something with my hands that can help this person. And I really enjoy that about Orthopedics and it's a very collegial specially. There's so many different avenues that you can take foot and ankle surgery, you can do spine surgery, you can do shoulder and elbow, you can do joint replacements, hand surgery, so lots of different specialty routes that you can take.

Haleema: So I guess the fellowship that you pursued was for spine surgery. Could you tell us a little bit about some of your favorite procedures or some of the things that you do I guess, fixed like a degenerative spine, for example, what is it that a spine surgeon does?

Antonio: Yeah, so that's a good question so degenerative spine, it's basically just arthritis of the back and, you know, everyone, as they get older, you know, your spine has gotta the breakdown at some points and just like you have arthritis in your knee or your hip, now your spine can have arthritis as well. But I would say some of my favorite procedures, my interests are minimal - minimally invasive spine surgery, which basically uses smaller incisions to achieve the goal of surgery. Also robotics and computer navigated surgery. That's basically using robots in surgery to help us as surgeons perform surgery in a more precise and accurate kind of manner. And then artificial disc replacements, which are different options instead of fusing a patient's neck, the lower back, we can put it, put a device and, that can retain some of that motion. So some of my favorite procedures are, you know, the ones that we use microscopes and surgery, or we're using the robot or using the computer navigation, that's basically looking at the computer screen and then helping us place,either screws or instrumentation into the patient's spine. So, you know, there's a lot of great technology and innovative things that are in the realm of spine surgery that's just on the forefront such as artificial intelligence. And you know, that's kind of the reason why I love spine surgery. There - there's always something new and evolving in this field.

Haleema: Would you say that orthopedic surgery takes the cake for like the highest techy specialty or does radiology kind of beat you guys to that?

Antonio: I would say surgery in general, you know but you know, in medicine overall, you know, there's a lot of different, you know, different various technologies that are evolving, but you know, there there's something new on the market, like every day for surgery and that's something to not keep you really, get really bored or kind of comfortable with your position because, you know, if you turn around and look tomorrow, there's a new technology, that's going to be on the market. But for me, you know, it's something that can help me better take care of my patients and get better, and have better outcomes. And that that's something that, you know, that kind of sparks my interest and what I'm looking for when these new technologies hit the market.

Haleema: And now, I guess kind of moving on, talking a little about what your YouTube channel. So you've created this channel with over like 200,000 subscribers and a lot of views, and it's been very beneficial, I think for a lot of aspiring physicians, for sure. How have you, I guess, seen videos impact people who, you know, maybe interested in medicine, but also people who may not really be interested in medicine, but have just led very, very challenging lives and have big goals, just like you pursued.

Antonio: Yeah. You know, it's a good mixture of people that are medical and good, you know, a number of people that are non medical. I get comments and emails from people that say, Hey, I have nothing to do with the medical field and, you know, I'm a financial advisor or Alma company, but you know, your videos have really inspired me. I think some of the principles that I talk about videos or some of the things that I advise and tips that I give can be applicable to anyone, you know, no matter what field that they are. Because these are some of the things that have allowed me to be successful coming from, you know, my kind of upbringings and to become an orthopedic spine surgeon. You know, as an accolade and I'm very humbled by it. But you know, it takes a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication. So it's just like, if someone became an astronaut and they had a channel about their journey, I was like, wow, how did I guy become an astronaut? I want to learn, like, what does he do on a regular basis? Or how does he study or how does he plan his day? What about his finances and things like that. So that's the kind of information and I, the representation and I like to bring out to the forefront and, you know, reached, you know, millions of people.

Haleema: So you've kind of written this book and then also you do a lot of public speaking in that sort within your community. Do you think your YouTube channels kind of like the culmination of everything that you kind of teach and preach?

Antonio: Yeah, absolutely. You know, when I was interviewing for residency positions I was, you know, coming from a small town in Louisiana, none of my family members are doctors and, you know, grew up, has a really rough background. And I was in these offices at Harvard, Stanford, and the Cleveland clinic, Northwestern, Baylor and all of these surgeons were really impressed with my story. And at that, around that same time, I was getting emails from people from all over the world - just asking similar questions. So it didn't, you know, dawned on me that, hey, I should put this into a video format where people can access this information at any time they want it, in any part of the world. So that's where the developments and the inception of my YouTube channel kind of originated from. It's just people sending me very similar questions and people really inspired by my story. So I would just want to share my story and inspire people - students from various parts of the world and let them know that, Hey, if I can go through all of this and you know, still , you know, reach my goals, become a surgeon and you guys can also okay.

Haleema: And I think something really interesting that I've seen on your channels, you know, you make a lot of videos about being a spine surgeon and tips you have, and also things with your family and stuff - your son is super cute by the way (thank you) but you also have taken a lot of videos dedicated to highlighting physicians who happen, to be minorities. For example, I recently saw a video you did with the foot and ankle surgeon, Dr. Aziz and so as a Hijabi Muslim, for me, that was super inspiring. Why do you think you would open up your channel to more people and what impact do you think and what impact do you hope that will kind of make?

Antonio: Yeah, so, you know, going back to my comment about representation is very important. You know, you - you can't become something that you can't see. So I think it's important for students from all different walks of life, to see someone who looks like them, that talks like them who comes from a similar background, a similar kind of goal to see that.

Antonio: So on my channel, you know, I try to feature minorities as well as females in medicine, and eventually yeah, I'd like to open this up to other careers in medicine, such as other careers in the STEM industry. So I think representation is very important and you know, that's, my goal is just try to bring some from diversity to the field of medicine and just to inspire people from all over the world to let them know that, you know, this is something that's possible because growing up, I didn't see one black doctor-

Antonio: I had never heard of a doctor, never met a black doctor and I'm sure if I would have seen that or just can go online and see someone who looks like me I'm pretty sure that would have pushed me in the right direction and kept me out of trouble when I was a growing up.

Haleema: That's okay, I think you ended up just fine after all, after a lot of hard work. And lastly, Dr. Webb, I think you've had a lot of advice under your belt, but I think I wanted to ask you, what is one sentence you would say to somebody who is struggling, who doesn't believe in themselves at all, but has a really, really big dream?

Antonio: I would probably quote a, you know, something that I got from my Dean at medical school.

Antonio: He said, "Failure is not in falling down. It's a failure to get back up and try again".

Antonio: So you're going to be knocked down hundreds of times, along this journey, you're going to fail tests. You're going to struggle with different exams. My hardest class in undergrad was organic chemistry. I hated that class. I actually had to take it twice. You will not use any of that information again. I get emails from students that say, Hey, I'm struggling with organic chemistry - can I become a doctor still? Yes, absolutely. You know, it's one of those classes that you just have to get through, hire a tutor if you have to. Spend extra time studying, stay, beat down your, your professor's office and say, Hey, I don't understand this. I am not going anywhere until you, until you explain this to me. So sometimes you have to be, you know, very proactive about it. But, I would say along this journey, you know, I failed tests, I've struggled with tests, even in residency, you know, trying to study for my orthopedic surgery boards. And we have to take these eight hour exams every year. You know, I, there were some years that I didn't do the best on those exams, but you know, you just have to constantly evaluate yourself and say, Hey, what can I do to better myself? What can I do to improve? And, you know, not let these obstacles, these bumps along the way, kind of slow you down, just ask yourself, what can I take away from this instance, the situation to use in the future. And that's what I do at every single obstacle. And some people will say, Hey, you know, you're a spine surgeon now. You don't have any more obstacles. That's actually not true. You know, it, you know, the, the, the journey just begins when you get out into practice. So, you know, everything else up until this point prepares you for this. So, you know, there's still a lot of obstacles that you have - we have to face on a daily basis as surgeons and as attendings. But,over the years, I've learned to deal with these obstacles and, you know, strategies that helped me be successful and I still plan to use them so.

Haleema: On that note, Dr. Webb, thank you so much for joining us today and sharing a lot of your wisdom and your life story. Be sure to subscribe to his channel. It's super great. I can tell you that for sure to keep up with the surgery work and also some of the other videos he's creating. Thank you so much, Dr. Webb for joining us today.

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