22 Spine Surgeon Leaders on the Most Fulfilling Aspects of Their Careers


Here are 22 spine surgeons who are leaders in professional organizations, spine practices, hospitals and innovators discussing the most fulfilling aspects of their careers.
Howard An, MD, Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush: The most fulfilling aspect of my career is the opportunity and privilege to work in academic institutions in which I treat patients with spinal disorders, teach medical students, orthopedic residents and spine fellows, and perform clinical and basic science research.

Neel Anand, MD, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center:
The ability to truly help someone who has been disabled with pain and see to them in follow-up after surgery as a completely new person, leading a pain free life is the most rewarding part of my job. I take tremendous pride in helping my patients regain a high quality of life that was taken from them because of their condition.

Gunnar Andersson, MD, Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush:
For any surgeon the most fulfilling aspect is to have a patient who is happy with the outcome of the surgical treatment provided.  Having said that I'm also pleased with other aspects of my career, contributing to the growth of the orthopedic program at Rush has been highly rewarding. I'm blessed with an incredible group of partners, many of whom I have recruited and I'm happy to see the success of our residency and fellowship programs.  I'm also very pleased with our contributions to the science of the field. While towards the end of your career you're disappointed at the speed by which science advances there is a tremendous difference in our knowledge base today and when my career started.

Scott Blumenthal, MD, Texas Back Institute:
The most fulfilling aspect of my career has been being the lead FDA investigator and performing the first artificial disc in the US.

Scott Boden, MD, Emory Healthcare:
I have been blessed with the unique opportunity to care for patients, teach residents and fellows, ask and answer clinically relevant research questions, play a role in ground-breaking new technology, serve in high office in volunteer medical societies, and use my administrative skills to help build consensus in our local setting to create new models for multidisciplinary academic spine centers. It’s all been fulfilling.

Charles Branch, MD, Wake Forest Baptist Health:
The most fulfilling aspects of my career are balanced between the opportunity to develop new lumbar fusion and minimally invasive technology and the training of young neurosurgeons who have become dedicated spine surgeons. Couple this with leadership roles in NASS and the American Board of Neurological Surgery and I have helped bring the fields of neurospine and orthospine closer together.

Robert Bray, MD, DISC Sports & Spine Center:
Helping further the development of spine surgery into a minimally invasive approach has been and continues to be a source of great professional fulfillment. Taking part in the design and application of the tools and techniques, specifically those of the microscope and microsurgical instruments, has led me first hand to experience the dramatic benefits of this approach. Once spine surgery was a major event requiring lengthy hospitalization and recovery; now most of my patients are able to return home within hours of their procedure.

Eugene Carragee, MD, Stanford University Medical Center:
As a poor kid from New York's Lower East Side, I was taught by the Christian Brother's that the only real work was dedicated service to help people. The best part of my career has been the privilege to care for all patients in difficult circumstances to best of my ability regardless of personal financial considerations here at Stanford. It has been an honor to work with residents and fellows with similar goals, who enriched my practice and my life with their energy and compassion. Wouldn't change a thing.

Thomas Errico, MD, NYU Langone Medical Center Hospital for Joint Diseases:
There have been so many fulfilling aspects from individual patients I have been able to help, development of spinal implants which are widely used, to training fellows. However the most fulfilling has been the growth and development of the division of spine surgery here within the NYU Hospital for Joint Disease system.

Before I started as an attending at NYU in 1984 there was one orthopedic spine surgeon who did pediatric scoliosis and spine fractures while all other spine surgery was performed by neurosurgery. After I started I was able to develop a meaningful relationship with the neurosurgical department leading to one of the first combined ortho/neuro spine fellowships in the country in the early 1990s. The merger with the Hospital for Joint Diseases in 1996 merged our departments and the fellowship programs further developing our program. 

Today as Chief of the Division of Spine Surgery we have grown to a Division of Orthopedics with 27 spine faculty members. Our research program presents and publishes academic work worldwide. We train four fellows a year and countless residents. We work closely with a vigorous spine service in the department of neurosurgery.  Together our two services perform nearly a quarter of all the spine surgery performed in NYC.

Steven Garfin, MD, UCSD Medical Center:
There have been many aspects, not just one, of my career that have been exceptionally fulfilling. One is helping train and develop some of the current superstars and thought leaders in spine surgery who were my fellows and/or residents. To see them blossom as academicians, spine surgeons and true leaders is wonderful — there are no words to describe the feelings I have towards them.

A second has been the unique opportunity to be involved in the early/start-up/trial phases of most of the techniques now employed in spine surgery. These include: pedicle screws, cervical instrumentation (anterior and posterior), thoracolumbar anterior instrumentation, spine trauma surgical techniques, biologics for fusion, the halo, kyphoplasty (and variations of the treatment), and now newer treatments such as SI fusions. I was often involved in the early FDA trials and contributed to technique and instrument development and teaching. A third fulfilling aspect of my career was meeting the leaders of spine surgery when I was a junior academician/spine surgeon. These leaders were friends (and some not so much) of Dick Rothman, who helped excite, teach, and mold, me in my career and my personal and surgical/scientific development. 

Another important fulfilling aspect of my career was being elevated to leadership positions in spine, culminating with presidencies at NASS, CSRS, course chair for six years for AAOS spine programs, working on a combined AANS/AAOS developmental/collegial task force team and now President of ISASS.  Additionally, related to this, I have helped start and promote spine societies and spine courses because of the contacts I had made early in my career (thank you Dick Rothman).

Jeffrey Goldstein, MD, NYU Langone Medical Center Hospital for Joint Diseases:
The most fulfilling aspect of my career has been the opportunity to perform spine surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center Hospital for Joint Diseases with a group of some of the most accomplished spine surgeons in the world while having the privilege to care for a group of patients with a variety of spinal disorders.

Richard Guyer, MD, Texas Back Institute:
I think aside from helping my patients get back to their lives, I have tremendously enjoyed directing our fellowship program at TBI.  There is nothing more gratifying than to see the “light bulb go off” as they transform into spine surgeons. At that time I know they get it and I am like a proud father smiling inside!!

Andrew Hecht, MD, Mount Sinai Medical Center:
The most fulfilling aspects of my career have been to make meaningful difference in the function and quality of life of my patients. In addition to the direct care of patients, I have built (with my partners) a world class spine program from the ground up at Mount Sinai that encompasses world class clinical care as well as basic science and clinical research with a terrific team of colleagues. We are now one of the largest programs in New York City. Lastly, my clinical work with the treatment of spine injuries in athletes has also been very rewarding. Watching elite (Olympic, collegiate and professional) athletes resume their pre-injury activity level and success as a result of my care has been particularly satisfying.

Harry Herkowitz, MD, William Beaumont Hospital:
The most fulfilling aspects of my career have been:

a.    Relieving severe neck and back pain and/or arm and leg pain by removing ruptured discs or bone spurs.
b.    Correcting severe spinal deformities so that patients can stand upright.
c.    Stabilizing and correcting spinal fractures in patients with spinal cord injuries and improving their ability to use their arms and legs.
d.    Watching residents and fellows mature during their training to become skilled surgeons.
e.    Doing research that improves the field of spine surgery so that we can improve the technology; improve patient outcomes to restore their quality of life.

Stephen Hochschuler, MD, Texas Back Institute:
The mission of the Texas Back Institute founded by myself and Dr. Ralph Rashbaum as well as three to four years later Dr. Guyer was to establish the most academic private practice of spine possible. We wished to bring partners who were otherwise considering a full academic practice into our model. This would mean that they would devote time to not only clinical practice but also research, teaching, publications and new product development. This vision and execution was celebrated at the last NASS meeting with a 35th anniversary party at The Dallas Museum of Art. The most fulfilling part of my career was to help bring this to fruition.

Charles Mick, MD, Pioneer Spine and Sport Physician:
The most fulfilling aspect of my career is working with patients — particularly when a patient smiles and says “thank you for giving me my life back.”  Words, embraces and tears can never fully capture those wonderful moments. As physicians, it reminds us what is most important and why we originally chose medicine as a profession. These days it is very easy to become distracted by the challenges of electronic records, rising costs, threats of liability, insurance authorizations, financial uncertainty and healthcare upheaval. In everything we do, we MUST remember these moments with our patients.

The second most fulfilling aspect of my career has been being a part of NASS since its beginning 27 years ago. It has been an honor to be a member, and more recently, part of the leadership team. I have learned so much from the dedicated staff and volunteers. NASS, with its multidisciplinary membership, is a tireless and effective advocate for quality spine care for patients. I am happy to be part of this effort.

Stephen Parazin, MD, New England Orthopaedic & Spine Surgery:
The most fulfilling aspect of my career has been the ability to help as many people as I have been able to. Having a career now that has spanned over 15 years, to come across the patients that I have helped previously or to help their family members is very rewarding. The ability to help and return a wholeness to patients’ lives is a tremendous benefit.

Raj Rao, MD, Medical College of Wisconsin:
The most fulfilling aspect of my career, without question, is seeing grateful and happy patients return to the office following surgery. Knowing that we’ve improved their quality of life and returned them to an activity level they thought was lost forever is quite thrilling. Each happy patient is the product of many years of years of training, hard work and evolving thought process and skill, and it’s nice to see these efforts paying off. Other rewards of a career in academic medicine have been to see the end products of our research endeavors crystallize in the form of a manuscript in scientific journals and steady progression along the career track.

Alexander Vaccaro, MD, Rothman Institute:
The most fulfilling aspect of my career is making someone neurologically better. Patients are extremely appreciative if you are able to improve their quality of life. This often is the result of making their extremity pain better or improving strength in their arms and legs.  Being able to take someone with a spinal cord injury and bring them back to a functional lifestyle is probably the most fulfilling aspect of my job.

Jeffrey Wang, MD, UCLA Spine Center:
Although there are many aspects to an academic career that include the complex surgeries, the training aspects of developing young surgeons in training, the research and potential for making a change, the most fulfilling aspect has to be the most basic in making my patients better. Performing and finishing a spinal surgery can make a huge difference in a patient's life and can make them better. Seeing a grateful patient and having the ability to see improvement in their life, is the most basic reason why one goes into spine surgery and is at the foundation of why we become physicians

Robert G. Watkins III, MD, Marina Del Rey Hospital:
The most rewarding aspects of my career are centered around the fantastic mentors I have had and the opportunities I have had to relay their teaching to a younger generation of surgeons. To be able to combine the total patient care of J. Paul Harvey and Alvin Ingram with the orthopedic surgery transitioning to rehabilitation of Vern Nickle and Jacquelyn Perry plus the surgical techniques of anterior lumbar fusion learned in my fellowship with John O'Brien in 1978, pedicle screw fixation learned with Fitz Magrel in Switzerland in 1980, and microscopic spinal surgery from Robert Warren Williams in 1981. All this preparation culminated when I joined the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic in 1981, and began to learn the care of the athlete.

The most rewarding aspects of my career is being able to combine spinal care, total patient care, spinal surgery, and the care of the athlete into a program we currently use in our center for which we are able to care for athletes from high school to the top professional ranks, from the minute of their injury to their complete return to their sport or desired level of function. The final important rewarding aspect of [of my career is] seeing the success of younger surgeons and rehab specialists, some who trained with us, in the care of spinal injuries in athletes.

James Yue, MD, Yale Medicine:
I have been fortunate to have met and worked with spinal surgeons, scientists, fellows and residents across the globe. My relationships and didactic learning with these clinicians and scientists, and the subsequent interactive didactic learning and development of spinal surgical procedures/devices which have been used to treat and restore the functional capacity of patients has been the most fulfilling aspect of my career.

More Articles on Spine Surgeons:

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8 Experts on Most Important Areas for Spine Research

12 Spine Surgeons Researching Disc Regeneration

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