Faces of Cedars-Sinai: Orthopaedic Surgeon Dr. Max Michalski
Nov 01, 2021 Jasmine Aimaq
Born, raised and schooled in Wisconsin, Dr. Michalski was first drawn to Cedars-Sinai because of its emphasis on education and learning. A specialist in foot and ankle surgery, the orthopaedic surgeon is now downright passionate about the bones that support the human body.
As for living in L.A.? Dr. Michalski shares that the sunshine and the beach were not what attracted him to our vibrant city.
"The people who work here are the best at what they do and create an incredible community of excellence and support."
You're an expert in repairing ankles and feet. How did you choose that specialty?
Dr. Max Michalski: One of my mentors called it. I was doing my residency in Orthopaedic Surgery here at Cedars-Sinai and wondering what to specialize in. Dr. Guy Paiement told me, "You're going to be an ankle and foot surgeon."
He was right. I found it to be such a creative field, with lots of challenging problems and interesting, varied solutions.
What are some of the most common problems you see?
MM: Fractures of the fifth metatarsal—the long bone on the outside of the foot that connects to the pinky toe—are very common. I conduct research in this area alongside my surgical work. You can get fifth metatarsal fractures while playing sports, but they often happen during mundane activities, such as stepping off a curb, or from repetitive stress or overuse.
Are these hard to treat?
MM: Pain and swelling are definitely frequent! Some types of fifth metatarsal fractures are harder to treat than others.
The most common kinds are avulsion and Jones fractures. In an avulsion fracture, a small piece of bone is pulled off the main part of the bone by a tendon or ligament. It's easy to miss this kind of break because it often occurs with an ankle sprain. Jones fractures are less common and also harder to treat, partly because they happen in an area that receives less blood. A Jones fracture can be a hairline break that develops over time, or it can be an acute break from trauma.
Why did you choose Cedars-Sinai?
MM: The people who work here are the best at what they do and create an incredible community of excellence and support. I did a rotation at Cedars-Sinai when I was a medical student, and my teachers and mentors were truly interested in education. I knew I wanted to build my career at Cedars-Sinai and felt fortunate to do my residency in Orthopaedic Surgery here.
At Cedars-Sinai, learning never stops. I'm in my second year as an attending physician now, and my mentors are still so supportive and enthusiastic. I am part of an incredible team.
Was life in sunny L.A. part of the draw?
MM: To be honest, I am a Wisconsin kid through and through. I was born and raised there, went to college and medical school there, and also earned a Master of Science in engineering.
I moved to L.A. because of Cedars-Sinai. Then I discovered the best thing about the city: my wife. She is from here, and that makes L.A. home for me.
What is an especially complex case you've worked on?
MM: Every case in foot and ankle orthopaedics is complex and unique. There are different ways to treat most of the problems we come across, including a range of approaches to incisions in bone and soft tissue.
What works for one patient won't always be the best thing for another. We've certainly had surgical advances over the years, including minimally invasive techniques that shorten recovery time and leave smaller scars.
What about breakthroughs in surgical techniques?
MM: Patients are often referred to me for highly specialized procedures. For example, I have performed revision surgeries for patients who had a foot reconstruction operation due to diabetes. By placing a frame around the leg, and allowing it to stay in place a few months, we can get the bone to stay in the right position without the need for permanent internal hardware. This is a complicated surgery, but it can be life-changing for the patient.
How do you spend your free time?
MM: My wife is a UCLA alumna, so we're big fans of both UCLA football and basketball. We love watching sports and frequently attend games, but things have obviously been on hold during the pandemic.
Thank goodness for our little dog, our Maltese rescue, Bella. She's lots of fun, and she likes to make appearances during virtual meetings.
Did the pandemic change your practice?
MM: My career actually began during the pandemic. I was completing a fellowship at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Suddenly, I found myself working Intensive Care Unit night shifts. Although I was back to being an intern—pre-rounding on patients, writing notes and placing orders—I was grateful to be able to help during an extremely challenging time when all of us had to step up.
You co-authored an article about the importance of finding laughter during the pandemic. How did that come about?
MM: In those early months, COVID-19 was still an unknown, albeit a frightening unknown. People were scared, we were worried and everything was extremely serious because there was suffering all around us.
One day, my mentor told a joke, and the team broke out into laughter. We suddenly realized how much we'd needed that. Having a moment of humor didn't mean we were less compassionate or sensitive. Just the opposite: Laughter is part of healing and health, and I believe it helped us give our best to our patients. At the end of the day, that's what being a physician is about, regardless of your specialty.