Brainworks: Brain Surgeons Give Glimpse of the Inner Sanctum
When Keith Black was a kid, his mom caught him dissecting a chicken heart by the side of the house. He was 8, and such behavior might have worried some parents. But Black's father, a school principal, recognized the boy's curiosity. The next week, he brought his son home a cow heart.
Max S. Gerber Jaren and Jared
By the time Black was in eighth grade, he was observing surgeries at university labs near his home in Ohio. By the time he was in 10th grade, he was performing them. At age 17, he performed his first organ transplant, on a dog, and published his first scientific paper, "The discocyte-echinocyte transformation as an index of human red blood cell trauma," about the damage artificial heart valves do to red blood cells.
He left for college, blasted through undergrad and medical school in six years, became a doctor, began researching the brain, made a bunch of discoveries in brain-tumor biochemistry and now is one of the world's pre-eminent neurosurgeons. Midway through a long and distinguished career, Black decided it was high time to pay that cow heart forward.
These days, when he isn't performing 250 to 300 brain surgeries a year (most neurosurgeons top out at 100), Black is in charge of a program called Brainworks at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he also happens to be director of the neurosurgery division. Schoolkids make a pilgrimage to see what it's like to work in medicine. They scrutinize sheep brains, play with operating room instruments, have their vital signs taken, learn how to use stethoscopes, peer at slides under a microscope and squirt DNA into test tubes.
"I tell kids it's important to be aggressive and persistent," Black said at this year's gathering. Dressed in scrubs, he stood off to one side of the auditorium, arms folded. He is 53 now, clean-shaven, tall and with a confidence that makes him seem even taller.
One kid, asked if he would want to be a brain surgeon, replied: "For the money, yeah."
Indeed, the money is not inconsiderable. Each child that day walked away with a pamphlet detailing the earning potential of various health-field disciplines. It placed the national median annual salary of neurosurgeons at $468,406.
"The money fades away," said Dr. Ali Shirzadi, one of the neurological surgery senior residents. "If you go for money, you're in for a surprise. It's not worth the suffering."
Shirzadi picked up an electric drill, felt the heft of it in his palm and put it down. He prefers a manual drill, he said. "I like to feel the bone in my hand."