Barrow Foundation UK

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Dr Robert Spetzler

Who picDr. Robert Spetzler, director of Barrow
Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s, is one of the world’s
most renowned neurosurgeons. He specializes in the
treatment of cerebrovascular neurosurgery, skull
base neurosurgery and neurovascular surgery.
He has corrected more aneurysms than any
other neurosurgeon in the world.

World-Renowned Neurosurgery Expert

Robert F. Spetzler, MD, has been at the helm of Barrow Neurological Institute for more than half of its 50 years. Here, the director reflects on Barrow’s remarkable past and looks ahead to a dramatically different future.

You’ve said that you wanted to be a neurosurgeon since you were a boy. What drew you to medicine?
Truth be told, I don’t know where my desire to practice medicine came from. I just know that it is what I always wanted to do. However, my first personal healthcare experience, as a five-year-old boy in Germany, no doubt helped shape my views about patient care. I had been diagnosed with tetanus, and the doctors saw little hope for survival.

Ultimately, they tried a new drug, penicillin, which killed the bacteria. The case was a celebrated success, and I mostly enjoyed the attention, with the exception of one very traumatic event in which I was presented to a large audience of physicians. The professor placed me on a small table in the middle of the stage and unceremoniously undressed me so he could perform a neurological exam. I still shudder at the humiliation I felt. This experience has stood out as a lifelong lesson to make every effort to avoid putting my patients into similar situations.

How did you end up at Barrow?
In 1983, I received a request from Dr. John Green to consider the position of chairman of neurosurgery. I met so many incredible people on that visit, and my wife, Nancy, and I fell in love with Phoenix.

There was so much potential here that I couldn’t turn it down. Dr. Green had established a threefold purpose for Barrow that included patient care, research and medical education, and that three-legged stool is still our foundation today. Barrow’s potential for the future continues to inspire my colleagues and me.

Are there any particular patients that stand out?
Absolutely. I remember Mrs. Jones, a young pregnant mother with a basilar artery aneurysm that had ruptured. It was in the worst possible location in the brain for surgery; however, using a technique called hypothermic cardiac arrest, or cardiac standstill, we were able to clip the aneurysm. No pregnant patient with an aneurysm had ever been placed into cardiac arrest before. Incredibly, both mother and child survived.

But on the other side, there are many patients who I wish I could treat again after the knowledge I have gained from their poor results. They have been my greatest teachers.

Kathy was a beautiful little girl with a cavernous malformation, a benign tumor in the brainstem. We performed a difficult operation and were gratified to see significant improvement. Unfortunately, Kathy developed a venous stroke and passed away within 48 hours. By going over the case again and again, we realized that the large abnormal veins associated with this cavernous malformation carry out normal function. We now know that it is critical that these associated veins are preserved. Kathy taught us this, and today countless patients have benefited from this knowledge.

Aside from these clinical lessons, what life lessons do you hope to impart to Barrow’s residents?
I have told my residents ad nauseam that there are two blessings in life: to be happy at home and happy at work. I have been incredibly blessed on both counts. I believe it is your attitude, in large part, that paves the road to happiness. You are a role model to so many.

Who do you look up to?
There are many heroes who have helped shape my life, from Albert Schweitzer, a missionary physician, to Gandhi. But I also have a very personal hero—my youngest brother, Bertram, an orthopedic surgeon who became a quadriplegic after a biking accident in 2008. In a split second, he lost his surgical profession, his ability to be independent and his livelihood. He had every reason to be bitter and rage at the injustice that serendipity had thrown at him. Instead, he stayed positive, and he lives his life fully without bitterness or regrets. He remains extremely grateful for what he has received in life and makes those he meets feel thankful for their own good fortune.

As director of Barrow, what are you most proud of?
Barrow has achieved a level of recognition of which we can all be proud, from being named a top 10 hospital to performing more neurosurgeries than any other facility in the United States. I’m particularly proud of creating the largest neurosurgery residency program in the country. I like to say that we teach tomorrow’s medicine today.

But, what I’m most proud of, very simply, are the people I work with—my neurosurgical and neurological colleagues; all the physicians, nurses and techs who play a role in patient care; the benefactors who help fund our work; and, of course, the patients we treat. All of the lovely notes I receive from patients attest to the fact that our team has achieved a degree of excellence that is a source of great pride.

What do the next 50 years have in store for Barrow?
We’re going to see dramatic changes, both at Barrow and in the neurosciences as a whole. I believe that Barrow will be at the forefront of finding answers to some of the most devastating neurological conditions—Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, degenerative disk disease. Malignant brain tumors will be effectively treated and controlled. And the Barrow Center for Neuromodulation has an incredible potential impact on society. We will help nonfunctional individuals become functional again, and that is remarkable.

Barrow surgeons will largely put themselves out of business in the coming years. Rapid advances in minimally invasive surgery, and gene and stem-cell treatments will mean that the traditional role of the brain and spine surgeon will disappear. Our profession will drastically change, and that is very good news.


Barrow Foundation UK
13 Church Street
Nunney, Somerset, UK
Phone: 44-7990-973887

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