2014 Top Doctor: Robert F. Spetzler, MD

Written by PM Staff Category: Profiles Issue: April 2014
Group Limited


Med School/Year Graduated: Northwestern University School of Medicine, 1971
Years in Practice: 37

What inspired you to become a brain surgeon?
My first health care experience, as a 5-year-old child in Germany, shaped my views about medicine. After contracting tetanus, I was one of the first to receive a new miracle drug – penicillin – for what had been a usually fatal disease. After months in the hospital and the subject of much medical attention, I was convinced that I wanted to help save the lives of others.

One of your breakthrough aneurysm removal surgeries required inducing hypothermia and clinical death in the patient. Describe it.
In order to successfully treat otherwise inoperable brain aneurysms, we helped pioneer a surgical procedure at Barrow [Neurological Institute] that involves cooling the body to 15 degrees centigrade or lower, eliminating blood flow from the body and stopping the heart. At such low temperatures, the brain and other organs can survive without harm for as long as 60 minutes – enough time to clip and deflate the brain aneurysm. We have conducted more than 100 of these surgeries, by far the most of any hospital in the world.

What is the most significant advance in your field in the past 10 years?
There are many and include molecular profiling to be able to provide personalized treatments tailored for particular diseases... and the evolution of microsurgery.

What do you do to keep your own brain sharp?
There are many things I do to keep my mind sharp. I am an avid biker, skier, swimmer and marathoner. The daily interactions with our... hardworking residents and colleagues at Barrow also keep me on my toes.

You were named “Best Brain Surgeon” by the Phoenix New Times, and were profiled in Der Spiegel. You know that makes you a rock star, right?
Although I have been privileged to take on the most difficult and challenging cases from around the world, it is the rare poor outcome, despite our best efforts, that keeps me from being a “rock star.” However, the patients who entrust their life to our care are, in my mind, the real “rock stars.”