7 spine surgeons pay tribute to their most significant mentors


Seven spine surgeons pay tribute to the mentors who left the biggest mark on their careers.

Ask Spine Surgeons is a weekly series of questions posed to spine surgeons around the country about clinical, business and policy issues affecting spine care. We invite all spine surgeon and specialist responses.

Next week's question: What is the most controversial trend in spine today?

Please send responses to Alan Condon at acondon@beckershealthcare.com by 5 p.m. CST Wednesday, Nov. 11.

Note: The following responses were lightly edited for style and clarity.

Question: Who is the spine surgeon who has had the biggest impact on your career? 

Kern Singh, MD. Rush University Medical Center (Chicago): Alex Vaccaro, MD. I met Alex when he was a young attending at Thomas Jefferson University in 1995. I had just started medical school and was very young, having skipped several years of high school and college. Alex gave me an opportunity to succeed when no one else did. I was one of his first research assistants during my medical school tenure. Twenty-five years later, I continue to work closely with him. Over the past 25 years our relationship has evolved. What started off as a mentor relationship has become a close friendship. 

I still recall one of my first encounters with Alex in 1997 when we traveled to Seattle for a research collaboration with the University of Washington. We ended up going for a run in the rain, playing video games and talking about day trading. Last year, when he was in town for Grand Rounds at Rush, we went to dinner with our wives. I run the same research lab as Alex did when I was his student. I always tell my students that I hope one day they can impact someone's life and career like Alex did for me 25 years ago. 

Robert Bray Jr., MD. DISC Sports & Spine Center (Newport Beach, Calif.): Without question, the single most influential leader in developing my career was Robert Grossman, MD. I was among his first year of residents when he assumed the chairmanship at Baylor. He taught me to have a deep respect for the field of neurosurgery and demanded complete dedication and work ethic. He always placed quality first without compromise and believed in a personal touch with strong patient interaction. This meant he never sat behind a desk when talking with patients and had direct contact during every exam and surgery.

Starting day one, he took my loops away, placed them in his drawer and said, "you may have them back when you leave, but now we'll do every procedure under the operating microscope." It was a very crude and undeveloped technology, but he saw and understood the potential and future. There are few neurosurgeon leaders that have contributed his depth of knowledge and training to the field. To this day, I have always attempted to emulate what he instilled. I am very proud to be trained by Dr. Grossman.

Issada Thongtrangan, MD. Microspine (Phoenix): My mentors at Stanford and Texas Back Institute are my role models. I was fortunate to spend time with the world-renowned surgeons at both organizations. Not only learning the clinical aspects and surgical technique, but also learning and observing how to be a quality physician for the patients and a quality citizen to the community. I still remember them saying that the great surgeon is the one who knows his or her limitation, and when to stop and ask for help. Learning is a lifelong process and we all should keep an open mind for the new techniques over the horizon. We just have to be wise to choose them properly.

Brian Gantwerker, MD. Craniospinal Center of Los Angeles: I think it comes down to two people in my professional career that really shepherded me into spine surgery. The first was a neurosurgeon in Cleveland named Benedict J. Colombi, MD. Ben was a Vietnam War veteran and tough as nails. He was a bit blustery, but had a soft spot for people down on their luck. He was a consummate surgeon, in that he always had clear operative indications in mind. He never did more than was necessary and always did a neurological exam. He used to round on his patients twice a day and you had better know their exam just as well as him. Ben never compromised on doing what was right. He passed away last year, after a long fight with colon cancer. I looked on him like a surrogate dad during a tough time and I am so grateful to him for his erudite approach and straightforward and honest ways.

The second, Volker Sonntag, MD, really showed me how to use common sense thinking to solve difficult problems. He is also a very logical thinker and a perfectionist, like Ben was. He had a way of decoding complex problems and coming up with uncomplicated, common sense solutions. He also had a fantastic way of explaining in brief, easy to understand ways, these complex procedures to the patients. I still use a lot of his shorthand and postop hacks to help patients in their recovery. I am thankful to know both of them and for their positive influence on me, and ultimately my patients.

John Burleson, MD. Hughston Clinic Orthopaedics (Nashville, Tenn.): I have had the good fortune to work with many great surgeons throughout my training. Isador Lieberman, MD, has had the biggest impact on me individually. Not only did I spend a significant amount of time with him in the operating room and the office learning how to take care of patients, but we continue to communicate about many issues. He has advised me on practice setup, personal growth, work-life balance and interests outside of my job as a physician. He has taught me to treat every patient like they are my own family member and to "think like a surgeon" at all times.

Christian Zimmerman, MD. Saint Alphonsus Medical Group and SAHS Neuroscience Institute (Boise, Idaho): I was exceptionally fortunate to have spent an entire year at the Barrow Neurological Institute as a complex spinal disorders fellow with Volker Sonntag, MD. His reputation was international, his research and publications were prolific. The opportunity to be a participant and contributor to this organization was both preeminent and humbling. I would defer to commentary from the past:

"From the moment of our first handshake, to the last day of training's bittersweet departure, the graciousness of Dr. Sonntag’s action toward patient's and coworker, his advocacy of guidance and the unshakeable focus of all that is family and friends, defined the teacher. From a distance, both yesterday and today, I remain humbled in respect and beholden to a mentor who shaped mine and so many other lives. Gratitude becomes the cornerstone of one’s friendship." (Sonntag Society, 2012)

Todd Lanman, MD. Lanman Spinal Neurosurgery (Beverly Hills, Calif.): The first, W. Eugene Stern, MD, chair of the department of neurosurgery at UCLA, where I trained, really taught us to properly and thoroughly evaluate a patient through thoughtful neurologic examination and history taking. The second, Donald Becker, MD, who introduced the newer technology used often in diagnosing patients. Third, Ulrich Batzdorf, MD, still a professor at UCLA, was the first real spine surgeon I operated with during my residency. All of these men were gentlemen and incredibly knowledgeable, thorough and careful in all aspects of learning.

Finally, Rick Delamarter, MD, a huge advocate of artificial disc replacement surgery, who placed the artificial discs in my spine, and was an incredible inspiration to me with regard to expanding my spine surgery influences within the arthroplasty realm. The combination of careful, thorough clinical evaluations in combination with new technologies and surgical skillsets enabled me to become the spine surgeon that I am today.

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