Amazing. There are few experiences in medicine more awe inspiring than gently incising the dura to reveal the delicate and beautiful anatomy of the human brain. This mysterious organ houses our memories, thoughts, and desires and gives us the ability to interact with the world around us. The brain, via the spinal cord and peripheral and cranial nerves, animates us. It is with our brains that we think, hope, and wonder, and it is because of our brains and spinal cord that we are able to walk, talk, run, and play. Neurosurgeons not only operate on the brain, spinal cord, and nerves but they are also experts in diagnosis and management of diseases that affect this delicate system. They are scientists, clinicians, and surgeons who are dedicated to treating diseases of the central and peripheral nervous system—this is the unique challenge and reward of being a neurosurgeon.
Unless you seek out experiences in neurosurgery during medical school, you may not have a good understanding of what exactly neurosurgeons do. Are they brain surgeons? What about spine surgeons? There are nerves all over the body—do they operate on those too? Most hospitals have a neurosurgical ICU—are they the physicians who take care of those patients as well? Do neurosurgeons treat all neurological diseases? What is the difference between a neurosurgeon and a neurologist? Briefly, the answers to these questions are yes, yes, often, absolutely, no, and a scalpel (well, not exactly!).
Neurosurgery is not a required clerkship in medical school, but it is a service in the hospital that you will likely encounter on a regular basis. During a rotation in family practice, for instance, medical students may see a patient that recently underwent decompression and fusion of a herniated disk that was pressing on the nerves in his low back. While learning pediatrics, you will probably care for a child who had a ventriculoperitoneal shunt placed shortly after birth to treat her congenital hydrocephalus (a condition in which cerebrospinal fluid accumulates in the brain). During your surgery clerkship, you may witness the neurosurgery team racing the victim of a bad car accident to the operating room to rapidly evacuate an epidural hematoma that threatens her life. After spending some time in the hospital, you soon realize that neurosurgeons play a critical role in treating a variety of disorders in a very diverse group of patients, and they very frequently interact with physicians from many different specialties.
Since most medical students do not complete clerkships in neurosurgery, their opinion of neurosurgeons is often influenced by what other residents tell them (“neurosurgeons have no lives”), what the nurses say (“those neurosurgeons think they are gods”), or what they have seen on television (the scandalous exploits of “Dr McDreamy” on ABC's Grey's Anatomy). As with most stereotypes, however, these notions rarely hold much truth. In fact, neurosurgery residents work under the same hour limitations as all other specialties, they all ...