Editor's note: After reporting on Nieko Julian and the life-saving surgery that removed half of his brain and cured his epilepsy, Tribune Chronicle correspondent Jennifer Shima was given the opportunity to observe the same surgery on a different patient and to write about her experience.
Brain surgery is not what you think. There's no drama, no gory scenes, and no tense surgeons barking orders over constant beeping.
I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch a surgical team at the Cleveland Clinic remove half of a human brain, and I was blown away by the artful simplicity of it all.
Imagine a "Grey's Anatomy" operating room, with two neurosurgery residents leaning over a dinner-plate-sized hole in yards of blue draping, calmly carving out small sections of brain and dropping them into specimen containers. Imagine them doing this gracefully for four hours with utter confidence and tireless concentration.
Then imagine me, a few feet behind them, ready to pass out at hour three just because I'm a wimp and not used to standing in one place for that long. Or don't, actually.
Everyone in the room knows that the brain they're removing belongs to an 8-year-old boy who's suffered between 10 and 40 seizures each day of his short life. They know, but they're coolly detached, focused on the task at hand, not on the life they're saving.
"While we're doing it, we're really just focused on the procedure," said the attending neurosurgeon Dr. William Bingaman. "We do it to stop the seizures, to improve the quality of life for the patient and his family, but while we're doing it, it's technical."
They move with remarkable confidence, able to distinguish one wrinkled pink section from another even though it all looks the same to me. It's obvious that this is not Dr. Bingaman's first rodeo. He does more than 20 of these procedures a year, and he once removed half of the brain of a 30-day-old infant who weighed less than 11 pounds.
I can't help but think as I'm watching, that if more people knew how deliberate, how controlled and clean this whole thing was, more might consider having it done.
This isn't just a treatment for uncontrolled seizures; for many people, it's a cure.
This boy will probably leave the hospital in 10 days, go to rehab for a few months, and the right side of his brain will take over for what the left side would have done if it was healthy. Not only will he likely never have another seizure, he will walk and talk and lead a full life just like anyone else.
Of course, with any procedure there are risks, but reading the fine print makes us think of a giant bloody mess with the patient on the brink of death, their very life dependent on whether or not the surgeon was able to get a cup of coffee that morning.
But it's just not true.
I saw surgeons working on a live human brain just feet away, a brain that will have thoughts and a life of its own as soon as the anesthesia wears off, and I didn't feel uneasy about it for a second. I'm more nervous about the outcome of my dry-cleaning than I am about the results of this surgery. After seeing for myself how skilled and poised the surgical team was, I have no doubt that this child will be just fine.
Brain surgery isn't brain surgery - not for Dr. Bingaman and his team. For them it's an art form and a calling, and they're really, really good at it.
"While you're doing it, it's technical," said Bingaman. "But when it works and they come back seizure free, it's the best feeling in the world."