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After 32 Years, Michelle James, M.D., Leaves a Lasting Legacy at Shriners Children’s Northern California

Michelle James

Dr. Michelle James, former chief of orthopedics at Shriners Children's Northern California

For Michelle James, M.D., the road to becoming former chief of orthopedics at Shriners Children’s Northern California started when she was influenced by her father, Preston James, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon who carefully placed Lorraine Day, M.D., a female leader in orthopedic surgery, in Dr. James’ path.

Dr. Day helped Dr. James realize the possibility of a career in orthopedic surgery – a career choice that, for women, was quite unusual at the time. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, orthopedics is the specialty with the lowest percentage of women of all specialties. Even today, nationwide, only about 6% of orthopedic surgeons are female.

For over 30 years, Dr. James has poured her heart and soul into the advancement and expansion of pediatric orthopedic services, ensuring that children who need care the most have access to some of the best orthopedic care in the country.

A Passion for Mission-driven Work

During her orthopedic surgery residency at UC San Francisco, Dr. James completed a six-month rotation in pediatric orthopedics at Shriners Children’s Northern California, when it was located in San Francisco. She then went on to complete a hand surgery fellowship at the Indiana Hand Center.

“The fact that the anatomy of the hand is so bound with function was really what interested me in hand surgery,” said Dr. James.

Upon her return, she volunteered at Shriners Children’s Northern California with her father, and also colleagues in her private practice in San Francisco.

“I quickly realized there was never a bad day at Shriners Children’s,” said Dr. James. “I felt like my skills were needed, the work was mission-driven, and I was surrounded by people who loved what they did. That was hard to beat.”

Dr. James joined Shriners Children’s in 1991, where she became the nation’s first full-time pediatric hand surgeon, and established Shriners Children’s Northern California’s hand and upper extremity program. She was more than qualified for the position, having already started the first brachial plexus birth palsy clinic in the United States in 1989 as a volunteer. The once-small brachial plexus birth palsy clinic now serves the largest volume of children with this complex condition in the Western United States at Shriners Children’s Northern California.

Prior to the formation of specialized pediatric hand programs, children’s hand surgeries were performed by surgeons who specialized in hand surgery for adults, and rarely treated pediatric patients.

Because pediatric hand problems are complex and unique, this program was ideally situated in a children's orthopedic hospital. Dr. James understood the opportunity provided by Shriners Children’s to build the premier pediatric hand program on the West Coast.

As the pediatric hand service grew, Dr. James led the spinal cord injury rehabilitation program – a role she ended up serving in for about eight years.

“That was the best experience because I learned about spinal cord injury, the issues people face after they have a spinal cord injury, and I was just blown away by patients’ bravery and resilience after their injury,” said Dr. James.

Out of this experience, she became very interested in surgical reconstruction of the upper extremity in spinal cord injuries, which is a very specialized area of hand surgery, dedicated to restoring arm and hand function after a person has been paralyzed. After those initial eight years of intertwining her hand expertise with various programs, Dr. James had developed a hand program that allowed her to begin practicing hand surgery full-time.

“This is the point in my career where I felt like I had a scam going,” joked Dr. James. “I loved my patients, I loved my work, I worked with amazing people, and I could make a difference in kids’ lives because of the generosity of our donors and the Shriners. It was such a privilege.”

eight female physicians in orthopedic department

Dr. James poses with a group of female orthopedic surgeons. She dedicated a large part of her career to increasing the representation of women in the orthopedics department.

Growth, Leadership and Research

In 2006, Dr. James was named chief of staff for orthopedic surgery. Under her leadership, she grew the number of orthopedic surgeons on her team from six to 12, most of whom work at both Shriners Children’s and UC Davis. Most significantly, she increased the number of women practicing orthopedic surgery at Shriners Children’s Northern California to eight out of 12, or 66%, compared to a figure of 6% nationwide.

Dr. James has served as principal investigator for eight funded studies of children’s hand and upper extremity function, and has published over 100 articles in peer-reviewed journals. She served as a director of the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery from 2006 to 2013. She has been the deputy editor for the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery since 2006. She has received multiple teaching awards, and has served as visiting professor on many occasions, nationally and internationally.

Dr. James will remain on the scientific staff until her current Shiners Children’s grant is finished at the end of 2025. A professor of clinical orthopedic surgery at UC Davis and UC San Francisco, Dr. James was recently appointed to vice chair of education for the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at UC Davis.

An Exciting Future

A skilled surgeon, mentor, teacher and friend to many, Dr. James continues to inspire the next generation of physicians at Shriners Children’s. Dr. James has positioned Northern California’s orthopedics program as a leader in the field, and her impact will be felt inside Shriners Children’s Northern California for years to come.

two physicians viewing X-ray

Dr. Michelle James views an X-ray with her father, Dr. Preston James.

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