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Dream Job: Brain Surgeon

The Brains Behind the Brain Surgery

Ever thought about finding a lucrative, fulfilling, high-status profession far beyond the reach of the average man or woman? Ever thought about brain surgery? Well, think again.

A neurosurgeon studies for an absolute minimum of 14 years before being legally qualified to poke inside someone's head. But even after four years pre-med, four years MD and six years of residency, many neurosurgical candidates cram in a two-year master's degree and follow their residency with a one- to two-year subspecialty fellowship, if not significant Ph.D. research in neuroscience. And if you think that's a long haul as an impoverished student, try doing it while all your med school buddies are living large on GP salaries.

On the flip side, the patient having his or her head examined probably feels better knowing that the guy wielding the knife put in 20 years for the privilege. But 20 years...isn't that a bit much?

"Absolutely not," says Dr. Deon Louw, FRCS, a practicing neurosurgeon since 1994. "We need that kind of double-Darwinian selection process so only the strongest survive. You don't want the unskilled fiddling with peoples brains."

In Dr. Louw's experience, becoming a good neurosurgeon isn't about being the smartest guy in the room, which is well nigh impossible anyway when all your peers are mental giants. "It's not just about scholarship. People don't realize the strenuous physical demands of the job. It's common to put in long hours in the OR, standing very still, performing delicate technical tasks with every ounce of dexterity you can muster. That takes stamina."

So what makes neurosurgery a dream job? "The rewards are great. To make a diagnostic home run in this highly competitive arena is enormously self-validating. Finding you've developed 24-carat fingers performing a particular procedure over time is truly satisfying. And just imagine the life-changing results one can achieve with patients. The gratification of shaking the hand of someone who was formerly paralyzed is incomparable."

Add on the fact that neurosurgery is one of the most prestigious and highly paid professions in existence (you could become a millionaire), and maybe 20 years isn't so long after all. "Certainly the upper echelons of the profession enjoy great status and wealth," agrees Dr. Louw, "but that's attainable faster and easier in other branches of medicine, and at far lower personal cost."

For Dr. Louw, the critical difference in choosing neurosurgery was the philosophical implications. "Everything that's interesting about humans, from a Brahms' symphony to weapons of mass destruction, is a function of the brain. To delve in, to try and dissect the complexities of the mind without having a higher intelligence than we have, that's formidable. We don't call the heart, or the colon, the seat of the soul. It's the brain. Can you conceive of anything more fulfilling than trying to crack the code of the final frontier?"