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AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 28, Number 1, 2019

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Generational Neurosurgery: Would You Want This for Your Children?

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Recently, while I was discussing by phone a research project with a prominent academic neurosurgeon, he eventually paused mid-sentence, and recognizing my last name, asked if I was any relation to a neurosurgeon of the same name that he had known from his training. I answered that I was related and that prior acquaintance was, in fact, my father. Expressing surprise, the voice on the other end of the phone responded, “I can barely get my kids to talk to me…there’s not a chance that they would’ve gone into neurosurgery.”

The demands of neurosurgical practice routinely steal time from other aspects of a neurosurgeon’s life. The limitations include long days away from spouses and children and forced neglect of domestic concerns and events. This creates the potential for family rifts and resentment toward a parent who often appears more dedicated to their profession than their own family. With time, “neurosurgery” is viewed as the divisive force, and the thought of pursuing their parent’s occupation becomes unpalatable for the offspring of neurosurgeons.

Kennings generations

Left: James A. Kenning, MD; Right: Tyler J. Kenning, MD.

“Generational neurosurgery” therefore is viewed with curiosity, as some wonder how an individual would pursue the field, having seen firsthand in their parent the limited existence it typically permits beyond its practice. When balanced properly with life, however, neurosurgery is an enviable profession and can be a positive influence on one’s children. It truly embodies the virtues of Theodore Roosevelt’s sentiment that “…the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”

Growing up, I watched my father work tirelessly, and I quickly realized that his was “work worth doing.” In the early years of my medical training, I often wondered if I pursued the practice of neurosurgery because I wanted to be a neurosurgeon or if I simply wanted to emulate my father. With time, I realized that the two were nearly synonymous — much of what defined him in his professional and personal life was dictated by his occupation. To approach the successes my father had achieved both as a neurosurgeon and beyond his practice seemed like admirable, but very lofty, goals to me. As a result, I have modeled my work ethic and my family life after my father. He has served as my greatest mentor in every aspect of my life.

Finally, I am fortunate to be colleagues with two other members of the department of neurosurgery at Albany Medical Center, Alan S. Boulos, MD, FAANS, and John W. German, MD, FAANS, who have similarly followed in their fathers’ footsteps. In addition to succeeding his father, John N. German, MD, FAANS(L), Dr. German is also the grandson of a neurosurgeon. The German family truly represents the merits of generational neurosurgery and the passage of its virtues. Both he and his father have provided insight into their motivations for following in the footsteps of William J. German, MD, the first chief of neurosurgery at Yale University and a fellow faculty member of Harvey Cushing, MD.

Germans gerations

Left: William J. German, MD; Right: John N. German, MD, and John W. German, MD.

John N. German, MD, FAANS(L)
With a father who was the first, and for a time, the only neurosurgeon in Connecticut, the founder of the section of neurosurgery at Yale University, and a mother who was a scrub nurse for Dr. Cushing, many folks thought my older brother would be the one. We saw little of Pop, as he was in great demand. Mother was sick with breast cancer and died when I was seven. At that time, there was a war, and the Navy called Pop up. So, being a rather screwed up teenager, I had little idea what I wanted to do.

Late high school was the time when I began to realize what my father was doing. He was so kind, supportive and thoughtful with us: just the kind of person one would like to become. Pre-med was hard, and there were so many bright students. Medical school was the best, and it was then that I really began to understand the field, the work and rewards.

I was my Dad’s last resident and at 80 years old, can look back at a happy, fulfilling life. This is a place that calls for humility, honoring of our patients and colleagues. I was lucky to have three partners who also felt that family is important. We could have had a practice with fewer men, more money and less family. Not good! So, work hard, but leave the intensity and stress at the door, be a parent and partner at home. Let the kids pick their way of life (within reason), and be supportive. And, good luck!

John W. German, MD
Life as the child of any physician certainly offers a unique perspective when compared to that of other children. My father may or may not have been home at night depending on his call responsibilities. Conversations at the table were, to say the least, different from that of my friends. There is no doubt in my mind that the call days, phone calls (before beepers and cell phones) and trips to the hospital were my introduction to medicine. My father was my first mentor and remains my best to this day.

While other parents asked if I was going to be a doctor like my father, he never did. He has always encouraged us to develop and maintain diverse interests and passions. His values include: composure, humility, commitment to treat all, hard work, unwavering support for family and diverse interests outside medicine. All good foundations for success in life.

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jill Hatch | April 23, 2018 at 12:21 pm

I worked with your mother and knew your dad during his residency at DHMC. It’s great to see that you followed in his footsteps. He is a great roll model to follow.