Destination surgery

Surgeon awarded resident of the year in hospital where he was born

After winning an outstanding resident award, Christopher Mussman, DO, shares his advice on how to get the surgery residency you really want.


Christopher Mussman, DO, was named the 2017 Outstanding Resident of the Year in Surgery at St. James Hospital in suburban Chicago, the same hospital where he was born 30 years earlier.

During his audition rotation at St. James, now Franciscan Health, Dr. Mussman sought every opportunity to showcase his skills, work ethic and commitment to patient care.

He worked long hours, nights and weekends. He volunteered whenever and wherever he could. He took shifts that others turned down. In the end, it paid off and helped him land a surgery residency there in 2012, which he completed in 2017.

His wife, Lisa Mussman, DO, a fellow osteopathic physician specializing in emergency medicine, supported him during his residency and encouraged his passion for surgery.

Now, Dr. Mussman is a practicing surgeon at Indiana Surgical Associates in Crown Point, Indiana. The DO spoke with Dr. Mussman about his experience in securing a residency in surgery. This is an edited transcript.

How did you begin your search?

When I decided I wanted to become a surgeon, I began investigating programs where I wanted to go and what could fit for my family, and in what regions of the country. I decided early on that I wanted to stay in osteopathy, so I applied only to osteopathic residencies.

What attracted you to the surgery residency at Franciscan Health?

I had family nearby. I saw it as a place where I could put a lot of time in, and determine if it was the right fit. Also, there were opportunities for advanced laparoscopic surgeries. And I liked that the residents there did rotations at Cook County [John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook Country], a busy trauma center.

How did you prepare for the residency while in medical school?

At the end of my third year of medical school, I spent time at Franciscan Health getting to know the residents and people. In my fourth year, I spent one full month there auditioning in general surgery.

How many interviews did you have?

I had four interviews. I applied to quite a few programs because it’s competitive and just having your application out there isn’t enough.

Any advice on how to stand out?

A rotation is highly suggested, although not mandatory. But if you’re passionate about a certain place, then doing at least two weeks there will benefit you. There are some places that will not interview you if you have not rotated there. Showing your face and being present can make all the difference.

How did you approach letters of recommendation?

I obtained them throughout medical school. I developed character references on my rotations. After a few rotations, I knew I wanted to be a surgeon. So any surgical rotation I did after that point, I would secure a letter of recommendation. I got one from a facial plastics rotation, one from my burn surgery rotation, one from Franciscan Alliance, and one from Grandview Medical Center.

How can letters of recommendation work in your favor?

If you have more than the bare minimum, you stand out. I figured that all things being equal between my application and another person, having additional letters would work in my favor.

What’s most challenging about securing the right residency?

It’s difficult to stand out from other candidates in a packet of paper alone. A lot of places filter based on grades and scores. So you have to find a way to stand out, either in your essay or letters of recommendation.

Knowing a program director is really going to help because they would’ve worked with you and seen your performance if you rotated there. Otherwise, they don’t know you and you’re just this packet of paper, which is supposed to be what gets you the job.

How did you stand out?

Work ethic and persistence during my rotation and taking any chance I’d get to help out.

What drew you to surgery?

I really like being hands-on and finding instantaneous fixes with life-changing or lifesaving intervention. Surgery is one of the few times you can cure a disease process in an hour or two. With an appendicitis or hernia, once you patch it, it’s over. I like being able to provide immediate relief to the patient.

What are the toughest parts about being a surgeon?

Difficult cases where that fix cannot realistically be obtained or despite all your efforts, someone’s health is not good enough to get better.

How does your wife being a DO help in your daily work?

We help each other maintain osteopathic principles in our patient care. The emergency department and surgery both care for many of the same patients. We often discuss disease presentations, diagnoses and treatment modalities. We notice when osteopathy can better be applied in the care of different patients.

What would people be surprised to know about the field?

Surgery is not always as dramatic as it is on television. There are occasional intense situations. The life-and-death situations we hear about are not that frequent. Very frequently, surgery is performed in a calm and controlled manner.

How did undergrad prepare you for your surgical residency?

In undergraduate, I obtained my EMT license through Illini Medical Services and that helped solidify that I would have a future in health care somehow. It was a giant step toward my journey in medicine and ultimately toward surgery.

For further reading

Quiz: What’s the ideal medical specialty for your personality?

Orthopedic surgery: Tips on landing a residency in this specialty

5 key tips to get into the right residency program

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