Jessica Block, MD,.

Jessica “Jessi” Block, MD, was a beloved member of the Department of Orthopaedics’ residency program, who left an indelible mark on the department and all of her colleagues. 

Orthopaedics Resident Left Soaring Examples in Her Life

Professional Society Renames Courage Award in Honor of the Late Jessica ‘Jessi’ Block, MD

By Dirk Hoffman

Published April 24, 2024

Courage is often defined as the ability to confront fear, pain or danger with strength, determination and bravery. It involves taking action in the face of adversity, even when one feels afraid or uncertain.

“She was very talented, technically. Some people don’t have as much talent, and they work at it, and they wind up being pretty good. With other people, it seems like it is effortless for them. Jessi was a combination of both. She was very good to begin with, but she worked hard to be the best. ”
Clinical assistant professor of orthopaedics

The late Jessica “Jessi” Block, MD, who died last November, exemplified the epitome of courageousness during her lengthy battle with an aggressive form of oral cancer.

Renaming of Award Pays the Ultimate Compliment

A trainee in the orthopaedic surgery residency program at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Jessi first noticed a sore on the right side of her tongue in August 2021, but initially attributed it to the stress of applying to fellowships.

But by early 2022, she was having a problem dictating in clinic at Oishei Children’s Hospital and realized for the first time her tongue was deviating to the side. A subsequent biopsy showed a 4 cm mass on her tongue was squamous cell carcinoma.

Over the next year-and-a-half, Jessi underwent several major surgeries and multiple treatments of chemotherapy and radiation, all while continuing her residency training when she was feeling well enough to do so.

Last year, she was awarded the Ruth Jackson Orthopaedic Society’s (RJOS) annual Courage Award and was presented with the award via teleconference on Nov. 26, just four days before she died at the age of 37.

A contingent of members of the Department of Orthopaedics attended the RJOS annual meeting in February in San Francisco, where Jessi’s mother, Sherri Block, accepted the award on her behalf.

The society, whose mission is to promote the professional development of women in orthopaedics throughout all stages of their careers, also announced it has renamed the award as the “Dr. Jessica Block Courage Award” beginning with the 2025 recipient.

‘An Amazingly Selfless Person’

Leslie J. Bisson, MD, June A. and Eugene R. Mindell, MD, Professor and Chair of orthopaedics, says he was impressed with how much Jessi continued to focus on developing into an orthopaedic surgeon after receiving her cancer diagnosis.

“She wanted to keep learning and did not want to interrupt her residency training,” he says. “I told her multiple times that she was inspirational in the way that she was handling her illness. She was just an amazingly selfless person.”

Bisson says Jessi was “an outstanding resident, outstanding surgeon and teacher and made meaningful research contributions.”

“We talk about people at the faculty and attending level as what we would call a ‘triple threat’ —  a great clinician, great teacher and a great researcher,” Bisson adds. “But it is hard to find those people. Most of the time people are outstanding at one and good at another one and they do a little bit of the third one. But she was paying attention to it and excelling in all those things in her training.”

Due to Jessi’s illness during her chief residency year, her classmates and colleagues had to go about their daily routines without the full participation of one of their chief residents.

“We depend on our residents. They are an integral part of our clinical tier and part of the educational product that we deliver,” Bisson says. “It was just amazing that everyone just rose to the occasion. A lot of it speaks to the type of person she was. People wanted to step up and do everything they possibly could to help her.”

Had Earned Prestigious Fellowship

Jessi was focused on the subspecialty of arthroplasty and was “incredibly driven and tireless in her work ethic,” says Matthew J. Phillips, MD, clinical assistant professor of orthopaedics, who specializes in hip and knee arthroplasty, and is the director of the Jacobs School’s adult reconstructive surgery fellowship program.

“She was a self-starter in terms of her own education. Sometimes that is a difficult transition for people to make from being a lifetime student to actually directing your own education, which is what you do when you are a resident,” he says. “She was aggressive about learning. She was always prepared for cases.”

Phillips says Jessi took the same approach to everything in her life.

“She was very talented, technically. Some people don’t have as much talent, and they work at it, and they wind up being pretty good. With other people, it seems like it is effortless for them,” he says. “Jessi was a combination of both. She was very good to begin with, but she worked hard to be the best.”

Patients, their families, fellow residents, office staff and the staff on the hospital floors all loved Jessi, Phillips says.

“She had a great bedside manner and always made people feel like they could call her anytime,” he says.

Phillips notes that the orthopaedics specialty is very white male dominated and that Jessi was a great role model and mentor to the students behind her — not just women, but also underrepresented trainees.

Jessi matched to a very competitive and prestigious adult reconstruction arthroplasty fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. It was her first choice and its director, Robert Barrick, MD, is “one of the most recognizable names in arthroplasty in North America,” Phillips says.

“I talked to Dr. Barrick multiple times to let him know where Jessi was at in her treatments and he told me he would keep a spot open for her in the fellowship in perpetuity so that if and when she was well enough to come, she would have a spot. That speaks volumes about what they thought about Jessi.”

Role Model and a Passionate Mentor

Jessi was also an active mentor and was passionate about helping her fellow residents.

“Jessi was a phenomenal mentor. Even after she became too sick to operate, she still was available to us for mentorship advice, to teach, and to offer her insight,” says Ellen E. Lutnick, MD, a PGY-2 trainee in the orthopaedic surgery residency program.

“One memory that comes to mind was her teaching me a maneuver to reduce a difficult hip dislocation before I started my night float rotation — from her couch, while she was still in the midst of her medical treatments.”

“The word that comes to mind is grace ... she somehow managed a litany of setbacks, pain, disappointment, and life-altering circumstances with complete grace,” Lutnick says.

Alexander J. Macfarlane, MD, a PGY-5 orthopaedics resident, says “Jessi was a born leader. She was in a class of her own. I am thankful that she will be remembered and honored by a society that champions excellence in orthopaedics and elevates women in orthopaedics, because Jessi would have no doubt been leading the RJOS or another major society if things would have worked out differently.”

“When I joined the residency program, Jessi was the only other female in the program,” says Lauren M. Harte, MD, a PGY-3 orthopaedics resident. “She quickly became a role model, mentor and good friend of mine. She taught me many tips and tricks for reductions and pushed me to grow as a junior resident.”

“Aside from orthopaedic knowledge and techniques, Jessi was a great friend through the ups and downs of residency. I miss spending time with her in the residency room after a long day ... often looking through pictures of her dogs, Pepper and Sam. It is hard to put into words how special Jessi was.”

“Throughout her battle with cancer, we called Jessi our warrior. She was strong and resilient,” Harte says. “She always had a positive mindset, and you would never hear her complain. We all miss her very much. She will always be our warrior.”

Tammy Smith, training program administrator for orthopaedics residency and fellowship programs, says she grew close to Jessi early on in her residency.

“She was a very special person, and we shared the love of our dogs together. She adored her fur babies, just as I did mine,” she says. “Jessi worked tirelessly to help us recruit more women into our field of orthopaedics. She served as a mentor to female medical students and female residents, and took a lead role in our recruitment efforts.”

Lived Her Life With Perseverance and Grace

Jessi’s mother, Sherri Block, says Jessi was always serving others, so she feels becoming a doctor was a natural progression for her.

She mentored underclass women while she was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan and also participated in “alternative spring breaks.”

“Instead of going to Florida or somewhere warm and having a party, she went to underserved areas. She went twice to New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina. She went to inner-city Detroit,” Block says.

After graduating, she joined AmeriCorps and accepted an assignment called Operation Safety Net in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“That was a group that would go out at night and provide medical care to the homeless. They worked in the alleys and under the bridges,” Block says.

Jessi then went to work at an orthopaedics clinical practice in Arlington, Virginia, where her interest for the specialty really blossomed.

She later enrolled in a postbaccalaureate program at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and after a year was offered a spot in its medical school class.

Block says Jessi was surprised when she matched into the orthopaedics surgery residency at UB because she had not done any of her away rotations there and did not have contacts in Buffalo.

“So, it was a surprise, and it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to her.”

Block says Jessi often referred to Buffalo as home.

“She called the four guys in her class ‘her smelly, little brothers.’ She truly loved the people she worked with.”

When asked why she felt Jessi pushed so hard to continue her training despite her illness, Block says “she just approached that as something to get done with so she could get on with her life.”

“She approached the cancer with perseverance and grace. That is how she lived,” she adds.

Block says she hopes when people think of Jessi they will remember “that she walked the walk.”

“Jessi loved to teach. She loved to share knowledge with others and encourage others in their life paths. She got excited when others succeeded. It wasn’t a competition with her. She was in competition with herself, but she liked to see everyone win.”