What Happens When a Neurosurgeon Needs a Neurosurgeon?

When Brazilian neurosurgeon Jose Nasser felt numbness on one side of his face, he hoped it was a minor nerve problem and that it would go away quickly. But he decided to have an MRI done just in case.

The MRI showed that Dr. Nasser had an acoustic neuroma, a tumor that grows near the nerves that handle hearing, balance and facial sensation. And it was large enough that he would need surgery.

As a neurosurgeon, Dr. Nasser was intimately familiar with how serious this tumor could be—and with the risks of surgery to remove it.

Fortunately Dr. Nasser has a friend who happens to be an expert on acoustic neuromas—Dr. Michael Sisti from the Brain Tumor and Gamma Knife Centers here at Columbia University Medical Center/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

Dr. Sisti and Dr. Nasser met when Dr. Nasser came to Columbia to complete a neurosurgical fellowship. They became close friends. Over time Dr. Sisti came to consider Dr. Nasser part of his extended family, even visiting Dr. Nasser and his family at their home in Brazil.

When Dr. Sisti heard about the tumor he immediately arranged for Dr. Nasser to come to New York for treatment. It was an experience that would profoundly affect both doctors. Dr. Nasser published a memoir about the surgery called The Bridge, and both he and Dr. Sisti shared their story with MedPage Today.

Dr. Sisti told MedPage Today that he was “floored” when he heard about his friend’s tumor. An acoustic neuroma is a rare tumor, “so how likely is it that someone who is a neurosurgeon gets one of these? And how likely is it that you know that neurosurgeon and that his tumor happens to fall in your area of expertise?”

Dr. Sisti said that this type of tumor is treatable, but one risk of surgery is damage to the area of the brain that controls fine motor coordination. Dr. Nasser ran the risk of never being able to practice neurosurgery again.

“Any problem with the surgery would be a huge personal loss, and a professional loss for his country,” Dr. Sisti said.

Not only that, but Dr. Sisti found it challenging to operate on someone he knew. “You care about every patient, of course,” he said. “But it’s particularly intense when you’re that close to someone.”

The operation was successful, and Dr. Nasser has returned to practice in Brazil, now with a new outlook on practicing neurosurgery. “As a doctor, you have one side of the story,” he said. “Having both sides of the story makes all the difference. Now, I practice with love. It’s real, and it matters.”

Dr. Nasser has given permission to share his story, and you can read more about it here.


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