2017 Top Doctor: Peter Nakaji, M.D.

Written by Editorial Staff Category: Profiles Issue: April 2017
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Neurological Surgery
Med School/Year Graduated: University of California at San Diego School of Medicine, 1995
Years in Practice: 13

Brain ailments such as aneurysms and tumors are terrifying. How do you relate to patients and their families to ease their stress?
Brain aneurysms, vascular malformations, brain tumors and really any brain condition requiring brain surgery are very daunting for patients. I’ve found that most patients and their families are reassured to know that we bring tremendous experience, technical expertise and well-thought-out systems to their care. They know they are doing all they can do and getting the best care they can get.  

You focus on minimally invasive surgical procedures whenever possible. What would you say is the most surprising thing – to average folks such as ourselves – you can accomplish surgically these days?
One of the things that works most in [my] favor... is the Internet. Many patients have looked up their conditions online and resigned themselves to a shaved head, a large incision and a lengthy hospital stay that they see from other patients’ experiences. For many or most conditions now, we can offer minimal or no hair cutting, a small incision and a fast recovery.  

Why do trigeminal neuralgia and Chiari malformation particularly interest you?
These are two wonderful and fascinating conditions from a surgical point of view. They are both very hard on the people who have them. I love them in part because people feel tremendously better after [surgery], and because the surgery that treats them is not destructive. For trigeminal neuralgia we are lifting a blood vessel off a pinched nerve, and in Chiari we are making more space for a squeezed brain. Both can relieve symptoms that can really limit a person’s life. Alleviating pain is a great feeling.

What are your biggest work stressors?
I can honestly say that work is not that stressful for me. It is more like the stress of playing a sport, or running a marathon. It is work, I suppose, but really enjoyable.  

What is the most fun part of being a neurosurgeon?
We are given the privilege of doing something that history has only recently made possible: delving into the human brain. It is hard to say which part is best: operating, seeing patients, teaching or doing research to blaze new trails. All equally fun in different ways.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I enjoy reading, exercise, friends, vigorous debate and any time with my wife and kids. The truth is, there isn’t a whole lot of spare time in the traditional sense. I feel lucky that I need a bit less sleep than average.

Now that your colleague Robert Spetzler is retiring, you appear next in line to assume the title of “rock star brain surgeon” at Barrow. Are you comfortable with that? May we bill you that way?
Dr. Spetzler is really a genius, a generation-defining neurosurgeon. It has been an unparalleled experience to spend so much time with him. If we stick with the rock [music]analogy, I would say it is really the band that counts. No question, I plan to make sure that the music stays loud, and even Dr. Spetzler would be happiest if we keep playing newer and better songs.