Brain Trust

Written by Wynter Holden Category: Valley News Issue: April 2017
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Post-Operative Pastimes
As Dr. Robert Spetzler prepares to end his 30-year run as president and CEO of Barrow Neurological Institute, we imagine he’ll have more free time on his hands. Luckily, the overachieving neurosurgeon has no shortage of talents and hobbies to fall back on. Here are just a few non-traditional retirement activities we imagine Spetzler enjoying in his twilight years.
• Extreme Sports
Don’t laugh. Though Spetzler is a septuagenarian, he’s in better shape than the average reality TV star. He’s already done rim-to-rim Grand Canyon runs, Ironman competitions and heli-skiing, so hang gliding and BASE jumping aren’t far off.
• Professional Musician
Spetzler trained as a classical pianist, so the move to public performance in a dueling piano bar may be a fit.
• Operation (The Board Game) Coach
With more than 6,400 aneurysm surgeries under his belt, plucking that charley horse, writer’s cramp and broken heart out with tiny tweezers is a no-brainer for Spetzler. He’ll be teaching other players how to avoid the “red nose buzzer” in no time.
• Pub Trivia Contestant
Spetzler published 15 scientific articles and edited two books by the time he finished his residency. We’re guessing every trivia team in Phoenix would clamor to have him on board – if the smarty-pants isn’t planning to tackle questions solo. 

Dr. Robert Spetzler was working as an assistant professor of neurosurgery at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University in 1983 when Dr. John R. Green, director of Barrow Neurological Institute (BNI), approached him with a job offer. “When I mentioned this to my wife, she said if I went, I was going without her!” Spetzler says. “Then [BNI] brought us [to Phoenix] and it was love at first sight.” When Green retired in 1986, Spetzler took over.

Three decades and more than 6,400 aneurysm surgeries later, he’s finally ready to step down as president and CEO. “I’m 72 years old, and I never want somebody to say I hung on too long,” Spetzler says. “The person that’s coming is somebody I trained who I think is a fantastic replacement, and I’m very enthusiastic about this change in leadership.” After a lengthy national search, a committee led by spine surgeon Dr. Volker Sonntag selected Dr. Michael Lawton of the University of California at San Francisco to succeed Spetzler, who plans to continue teaching and publishing academic papers in his emeritus role at Barrow.

The transition marks a return home for Lawton, who completed his residency and a fellowship under Spetzler at BNI from 1991-1997. “That was when I was born as a neurosurgeon,” he says. “I came in from Johns Hopkins and happened to fall in with some of the best at the time. I saw what [Spetzler] was able to do with his microsurgical skills and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.” Lawton tried to finish his cases early so he could watch Spetzler’s skilled hands.

Barrow boasts one of the largest and most prestigious postgraduate neurosurgery programs in the U.S. According to Spetzler, nearly every major neurosurgical center in the country boasts a former Barrow trainee. “My biggest legacy is the residents and fellows that have graduated from here,” he says. To date, Spetzler – who makes a point to observe virtually every surgical procedure that takes place on Barrow grounds – has trained more up-and-coming neurosurgeons than anyone else in the world.

Under his tenure, the focus was on building a collaborative culture where everyone from nurses to neurologists has equal standing. Spetzler also teaches what he refers to as good citizenship. “By that I mean no intolerance, no anger. You respect the person who cleans the floor just as much as you do the president of the hospital,” he says. The culture he created at BNI is a major departure from the god complex stereotype that presents in the stereotypical surgeon.

While Lawton doesn’t want to be a carbon copy of his predecessor, he hopes to leave a similar legacy. His goals include promoting research and residency programs. “Education is one of our strengths, and that’s a real draw. What makes Barrow so special is that the level of surgical excellence is unequaled,” Lawton says. He is currently conducting research on blood vessel abnormalities at UC San Francisco and plans to bring part of his team to Barrow.

One opportunity is new medical technologies. In his more than 30 years at Barrow, Spetzler went from testifying on the safety of MRI just to get a second machine into Arizona to giving 3-D lectures and pioneering a “cardiac standstill” procedure that temporarily stops the heart so brain surgeons can better visualize blood vessels. “Think about an MRI scan today, which is around every corner now,” he says. “Those sort of diagnostic revolutions are parlayed into finding new pathways into the brain.” Modern technology doesn’t replace the neurosurgeon, he says, it helps them better do their work.

Lawton is coming in at a time when robotics, lasers and microscopic visualization are no longer Star Trek fantasies. Though he doesn’t officially take over until July 2017, he’s already looking at how new technologies can be incorporated into the institute’s education programs. It’s no longer about textbooks and cadavers, he says. The surgeons of tomorrow are studying live video feeds and training in virtual reality. “I think this whole teaching system will undergo a transformation,” Lawton says. “Barrow is poised to lead that revolution.”