20 Under 40

20 Under 40 - 2019

Meet the 2019 Winners

SpineLine debuted its 20 Under 40 campaign in 2018 to showcase NASS’ bright, young physicians under the age of 40. The SpineLine Committee selects the most deserving individuals based on accomplishments to date, community service and philosophy of care. Here are the winners, including brief articles on each that previously appeared in issues of SpineLine.

Past Award Winners:

Year Award Winner
2017 David Selby
William Mitchell, MD 
2017 Leon Wiltse K. Daniel Riew, MD
2017  Henry Farfan S. Tim Yoon, MD, PhD 
2017  NASS Spine Advocacy David A Wong, MD, MCs, FRCS 
2016 David Selby Jim Reynolds, MD
2016 Leon Wiltse Keith Bridwell, MD
2016 Henry Farfan Makarand V. Risbud, PhD
2016 NASS Spine Advocacy Charles A. Mick, MD
2015 David Selby Donna M. Lahey, RNFA
2015 Leon Wiltse Frank J. Eismont, MD
2015 Henry Farfan James C. Iatridis, PhD
2015 Past President David A. Wong, MD, MSc, FRCS
2015 NASS Spine Advocacy Dr. Jeffrey J. Wise, MD
2014 David Selby Raj D. Rao, MD
2014 Leon Wiltse Ziya Gokaslan, MD, FACS, FAANS
2014 Henry Farfan Michael H. Heggeness, MD, PhD
2013 David Selby Marjorie Eskay-Auerbach, MD, JD
2013 Leon Wiltse Lawrence G. Lenke, MD
2013 Henry Farfan Michael G. Fehlings, MD, PhD
2012 David Selby Thomas Faciszewski, MD
2012 Leon Wiltse Marcel F. Dvorak, MD
2012 Henry Farfan Helen Gruber, PhD
2011 David Selby Joel Press, MD
2011 Leon Wiltse Kiyoshi Kaneda, MD
2011 Henry Farfan Gunnar Andersson, MD, PhD
2010 David Selby Serena S. Hu, MD
2010 Leon Wiltse Alexander R. Vaccaro, MD
2010 Henry Farfan Narayan Yoganandan, PhD
2009 David Selby Stanley A. Herring, MD 
2009 Leon Wiltse Michael G. Fehlings, MD, PhD, FRCSC
2009 Henry Farfan Avinash Patwardhan, PhD
2008 David Selby David A. Wong, MD
2008 Leon Wiltse Eugene Carragee, MD
2008 Henry Farfan Kenneth M. C. Cheung, MD
2007 David Selby Edward C. Benzel, MD
2007 Leon Wiltse Arthur D. Steffee, MD
2007 Henry Farfan James D. Kang, MD
2006 David Selby Hansen Yuan, MD
2006 Leon Wiltse Henry Bohlman, MD
2006 Henry Farfan Vijay Goel, PhD
2005 David Selby Scott Halderman, MD
2005 Leon Wiltse Harry Herkowitz, MD
2005 Henry Farfan Howard An, MD
2004 David Selby Tom Mayer, MD
2004 Leon Wiltse Edward C. Benzel, MD
2004 Henry Farfan James Weinstein, MD
2003 David Selby Steven Garfin, MD
2003 Leon Wiltse Scott Boden, MD
2003 Henry Farfan Bryan Cunningham, MSc
2002 David Selby Bruce Fredrickson, MD
2002 Leon Wiltse John Kostuik, MD
2002 Henry Farfan F. Todd Wetzel, MD
2001 David Selby Richard Guyer, MD
2001 Leon Wiltse John McCulloch, MD
2001 Henry Farfan Robert Gatchel, PhD
2000 David Selby David Fardon, MD
2000 Leon Wiltse Steve Garfin, MD
2000 Henry Farfan Hamilton Hall, MD
1999 David Selby Casey Lee, MD
1999 Leon Wiltse Thomas S. Whitecloud III, MD
1999 Henry Farfan Vert Mooney, MD
1998 David Selby J. Walt Simmons, Jr., MD
1998 Leon Wiltse Hansen Yuan, MD
1998 Henry Farfan Manohar Panjabi, PhD
1997 David Selby J. Elmer Nix, MD
1997 Leon Wiltse Charles D. Ray, MD
1997 Henry Farfan Tom G. Mayer, MD
1996 David Selby John P. Kostuik, MD
1996 Leon Wiltse Thomas E. Whitesides, Jr., MD
1996 Henry Farfan William C. Hutton, DSc
1991 David Selby W. H. Kirkaldy-Willis, MD

David Selby
David Selby

Akhil Chhatre, MD

"Innovating Physiatry at Johns Hopkins"

Chhatre After completing an interventional spine and sports medicine fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania, Akhil Chhatre had many opportunities across the country to to begin his physical medicine and rehabilitation career.

He chose Johns Hopkins in Baltimore because of the lack of interventional physiatric presence and the opportunity to make a difference in his early 30s. As director of spine rehabilitation, he has done just that.

“I have established and expanded our ambulatory sites to 10 locations throughout Maryland, recruited faculty and started a fellowship with two fellows a year to teach other physiatrists how we deliver care,” he says.

Chhatre packs a ton into his workdays. In addition to his clinical duties, he teaches medical students, residents and fellows, and partners with other departments to formulate new ways to improve spine care. He is currently working on developing an app for pain management with Johns Hopkins and PainCare, LLC.

“My vision for nonsurgical spine care is a global initiative and I am thinking way outside the boundaries of Johns Hopkins in my outreach to improve access for patients who have spinal conditions,” he says. “This is my life’s work and I hope to continue to have the honor and privilege to serve those in need.”

Chhatre also gives back to his community with free seminars on spine health for physical therapists and other physicians. The topics include general spine and musculoskeletal health, and algorithms of care for physicians.

Born in England and raised in Kansas, Chhatre treats a wide range of disorders, including cervical degenerative disease, spinal stenosis, whiplash syndrome, facet join disease and more.

Christopher R. Cook, DO

"Takes Pride in Serving His Community"

As the only fellowship trained orthopedic spine surgeon in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Christopher Cook brings an important level of expertise to his community. After growing up near Columbus, Ohio, Cook trained in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and California before settling down in Bowling Green. Cook

“The Bowling Green community is a vibrant, diverse community with a college town (Western Kentucky University) feel,” Cook says. “There are people here from all walks of life, including a large number of refugee families. The people that reside in this community are hard-working, salt of the earth people, who like most of us desire an honest life focused on hard work, faith, and dedication to family.”

Cook says Dr. Ravinder-Raj Bains, his fellowship program director at Kaiser Permanente Oakland (Calif.) Medical Center, has been his mentor since his first interview for the fellowship. “He has taught me patience, hard work, and to simplify my operative treatment to cater to a patient’s essential needs,” Cook says. “He was essential in my adult degenerative and deformity training. I attended his nonprofit surgical trip to Northern India (Jalandhar) to serve children with severe pediatric spinal deformity.”

A desire to help patients in need of care and treatment related to pain and disability are what led Cook to the field of medicine. He says being able to help people with his own two hands was always a draw. Now, he is able to achieve that in a community he loves living in with his wife and four children.

“My personal and professional goals are to provide services that improve the quality of life of all patients, regardless of social status, race, ethnicity, cultural background or socioeconomic status,” he says. “My life as a physician and surgeon is that of dedicated service to others. I put this at the forefront of my care, and I treat every patient with diligence, patience and attention to detail.”

Andrew Fabiano, MD

"Buffalo Native Gives Back in Hometown"

Andrew Fabiano has spent most of his life in Buffalo, New York, and feels honored to make positive contributions in the city he calls home.

As the third of six children, Fabiano worked as a newspaper boy, dishwasher, waiter, in construction and at an auto factory in his early years. A few decades later, the neurosurgeon helped create the Spinal Oncology Center at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, treating primary and secondary spinal tumors.

“I feel incredibly fortunate to work in the community I consider my home,” he says. “It’s particularly rewarding to help out friends and family when they have a medical problem.”

Fabiano Fabiano says his grandfather, Arthur Fabiano, was a major inspiration for his career choice. As a child, the younger Fabiano saw his grandfather suffering from a neurological disease, but it did not temper his positivity and good humor. Seeing this, the grandson became motivated to help others avoid the pain and struggles that his grandfather endured.

In addition to his Roswell Park work, Fabiano is active with the Epilepsy Association of Western New York.

“While I have treated many patients in a clinical setting, working with this organization has helped me see all the different ways that a seizure disorder can affect an individual and their family,” he says. “It is meaningful to me to try to find new ways to help people and families who face the challenges that can be presented by epilepsy.”

Fabiano also takes a great deal of pride in being a single father to his daughters Ella, 11, and Alexis, 2.

“Being a single parent forces you to relate to your children in ways that you might not have expected, and this provides an opportunity for an incredibly special relationship,” he says. “I love my girls!”

Norah A. Foster, MD

"Hopes For More Inclusivity, Diversity in Orthopedics"

Foster The time demands on a modern surgeon can be overwhelming. Seeing patients, performing surgeries, navigating reimbursement, possibly running a practice … the list can feel endless.

Despite being a young orthopedic surgeon, Norah Foster is well versed in time management skills. As a swimmer and double major at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Foster learned to take advantage of each waking hour.

“Morning practice was key,” she said. “And probably why I prefer morning workouts still to this day. Swimming in college was definitely a large time commitment with practice 5-6 days a week, many days were two-a-day practice, and meets most weekends, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.”

Born and raised in Dubuque, Iowa, Foster took an interesting path to medicine, where she now works at Duke University Health System in North Carolina. Following college, she joined Teach For America, a program that includes a two-year commitment to teach in underserved areas. She taught math at JFK High School in Bronx, NY., and then physical science and chemistry at North Miami Beach High School in Florida.

Despite the rewarding experience of working in the classroom, Foster knew she wanted to enter the medical field. So she enrolled in med school at the University of Iowa, eventually leading her to Duke.

“I remain in contact with many students from my teaching days and continue to celebrate their life successes,” she said. “While my classroom looks different these days, the teacher within me remains strong.”

According to 2017-2018 data from Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, orthopedic surgery ranks the second lowest specialty in percentage of women. Foster lives it every day.

“There are a lot of talented people and groups working to improve the diversity in orthopedics and spine surgery, but we still have a lot of work to do,” she said. “I think the term ‘male-dominated’ is an understatement, yet that’s not to discredit the work that many men do to right the obvious discrepancies in our field. It is not easy, but then again, none of us went into this field because it was easy.”

David Gendelberg, MD

"Learned Value of Hard Work at Young Age from Israeli Father"

Nachman Gendelberg grew up the son of a Holocaust survivor and started working at 6 years old, delivering flowers. His work ethic never waned, and after immigrating to the United States, he ran his own business and was an engineer.

Gendelberg His son David did what he could to see his father, who worked early mornings and on weekends.

“In order to spend time with him, I would often sit by him while he was working or go with him to his office,” David says of his father. “However, a day at the office was no easy task. I would be the errand boy, doing everything from making copies to delivering items from desk to desk.”

The impressive work ethic was passed down. David Gendelberg, 33, is an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Washington’s Harborview Medical Center. He says seeing his father work so hard as a kid made a lasting impression.

“He taught not only the importance of work but also the importance of good quality and thorough work,” he says. “He would never take any shortcuts and always did the right thing.”

David Gendelberg spent the first 10 years of his life in New Jersey before his family moved to Israel. After finishing high school, he returned to America and later embarked on a career in orthopedic medicine.

At Harborview, he is a spine surgeon and clinical instructor in the department of orthopedics. Also a reviewer with The Spine Journal he sits on the NASS Political Engagement Committee and SpinePAC, and specializes in degenerative spine conditions, disc herniations, trauma and spine deformity.

“My dream was always to work at a place where I could treat complex conditions, provide high quality of care, perform research as well as teach medical students, residents and fellows,” he says. “Harborview represents all those and more.”

Matthew Goodwin, MD, PhD

"Inspired By His Father, Strives to Follow His Example of Kindness"

Goodwin Matthew Goodwin is an orthopedic surgeon at Washington University in St. Louis, and has had many valuable mentors as he worked his way through medical school, residency and fellowships.

However, Goodwin says some of the most valuable lessons he ever learned came from the man he grew up with. Even bedside manner, Goodwin says, he learned from his father. In a terrific 2017 JAMA article titled “Salt of the Earth,” Goodwin paid tribute to his father, who died of pancreatic cancer in his early 60s.

“Although my dad was an electrical engineer by training, he epitomized the traits we seek in our physicians but rarely find,” Goodwin wrote. “No matter where your life intersected with his, you met the same wonderful man: humble, loving, hardworking, great listener, slow to anger, and he always had a hug … I witnessed this type of behavior from Pops my whole life. Do I treat patients the same way?”

Originally from South Carolina, Goodwin says he was a poor high school student who didn’t find his academic footing until a threat of military school struck a nerve. Shortly thereafter, he thrived in school and later worked at an HIV clinic in Haiti, and spent a month doing spine surgeries in India to augment his standard medical schooling experiences.

He was a fourth-year medical school student when his father was diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer out of the blue. It was a brutally difficult time, but Goodwin was able to be at his father’s bedside at the end.

“Writing the (JAMA) article was not that difficult in that it was also therapeutic,” Goodwin says. “Here was this great man, who lived this selfless and humble life, and taught me all these things I use every day. Part of me thinks he would be embarrassed that I wrote an article about him in JAMA and that it generated so much interest. On the other hand, numerous physicians have told me it is mandatory reading for their residents and fellows now.”

Kush K. Goyal, MD

"Considers Whole Patient to Treat Chronic Back Pain"

Goyal For Kush Goyal, MD, practicing medicine is in his blood. His physician parents served as role models. He realized early on that he wanted to help people and had a natural interest in science, making medicine a natural fit for his aptitude and interests.

Settling back in his native Cleveland after an internship in Chicago and a residency in the Detroit metro area, Goyal found a professional home at the Cleveland Clinic where he developed a thriving spine practice. He also offers his time to NASS by volunteering for the Section on Rehabilitation and Interventional Medical Spine (RIMS). RIMS is a professional passion for him, noting “I would like to continue to demonstrate evidence-based medicine in the area of RIMS through further research and mentorship.”

One RIMS-related project that has gained a great deal of traction is his work with Cleveland Clinic’s “Back on TREK” program. The 10-week interdisciplinary program aims to improve function, reduce pain and stress for patients who have experienced three or more months of back and/or leg pain. Patients can access the program themselves, or they can be referred by their primary care physician, physical therapist, spine center or pain management specialist. The plan requires a 2-3 day per week commitment from patients. Goyal notes a key to success is that, “the referring health care provider understands the relationship between chronic pain and biopsychosocial stress and is able to explain and discuss with their patient. Patients who live with mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and/or fibromyalgia are often good candidates [for the program].”

Dr. Goyal will be the presenting author for a podium presentation at the 2019 NASS Annual Meeting in Chicago, IL on September 27 at 3-4:00 pm. The session is titled “A Biopsychosocial Approach in the Management of Chronic Low Back Pain: 2 Year Outcomes.”

Jeffrey L. Gum, MD

"Reducing the Impact of the Opioid Crisis is Important"

As an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Louisville, Jeffrey Gum says he sees opioid addicted patients nearly every day in his hospital. It is a jarring visual and a huge problem with countless variables.

“I think it is important for us as providers to be more responsible with regards to opioid education and good prescribing patterns in order to make a difference and reduce the chance of more external regulators (government, insurance, etc.) telling us what we can and can't do to help control our patients’ pain and expectations,” Gum says.

Gum Gum is proud to report that his hospital has made huge strides, including a 65% reduction of in-hospital opioid consumption in the past two years. Much is still to be done, but he is pleased with the progress.

Gum, who was born and raised in Kansas, says he has always been very driven and that his work ethic stems from his father.

“He always preached that if you are going to do something, you need to work as hard as possible and try to be the best,” Gum says. “I've taken these childhood principles and applied them to almost everything I do in life. I've always worked my tail off whether it’s sports, academics or improving my surgical skills.”

That hard-charging work ethic led Gum to set a lofty goal for himself: be part of 100 publications before the age of 40. He will likely fall just short but the motivations remain the same.

“The number itself is not important, but the concept of continuously pushing the clinical dial and adding to improving spine care is important,” he says. “Momentum with research goes a long way and the goal of 100 was simply to help keep momentum.”

Isaac O. Karikari, MD

"Family and Giving Back Is the Focus"

Karikari For Isaac Karikari, a life in medicine has always been motivated by family. As a child in Ghana, his brother had a seizure disorder that put Isaac in contact with physicians on a regular basis. He enjoyed these interactions with his brother’s physicians and knew he wanted to be like them when he grew up.

He turned to a specialization in spine care during his residency year in neurosurgery. He noticed that unlike other neurosurgical patients, spine patients didn’t necessarily have a terminal illness, but did experience a marked decrease in quality of life. The ability to take patients whose life had become extremely difficult and make a significant improvement through surgery piqued his interest in spine care.

As a practicing physician, Karikari views each patient he sees as a family member and imagines how he would want them to be treated if they were his mother or grandfather. He treats each patient as an entirely unique case and he believes that although the pathologies may be similar, they manifest uniquely in every person. As a result, the treatments he designs are specific to each patient to yield the best result for that patient. “I take great joy in being a surgeon as it allows me to give back and help people during their most difficult times.”

He has a passion for helping people, and wants to develop a foundation to provide high quality education in developing nations that don’t have the means to develop it. “Ultimately I hope to dedicate my efforts to narrow the discrepancy in literacy rates that exists between developing countries and more advanced countries.”

When he isn’t practicing, Karikari enjoys spending time with his wife and two sons. He also plays Texas Hold ‘Em and is an avid supporter of Chelsea of the English Premier League.

Jonathan S. Kirschner, MD

"Life Comes Full Circle"

Kirschner Thousands of babies are born at Weill Cornell Medical Center every year, but Jonathan Kirschner is among the few who return to the hospital to practice medicine.

Born and raised in New York City, Kirschner’s passion for medicine began as a curious 8 year old. His natural tendency toward science and problem-solving paired with a desire to help people and love of sports made him want to pursue a career in orthopedics or sports medicine. However, a painful congenital anomaly discovered as a high school gymnast changed his path. “I did a lot of research on the condition and tried to treat myself with conservative measures, which led me to physical medicine and rehabilitation as a specialty.”

Kirschner's own spine condition allows him to connect with patients by relating first-hand to what they’re going through. He still treats himself conservatively via exercise and relaxation techniques, and receives the occasional epidural injection. “When a patient is concerned about the pain of a possible injection I let them know that I have had them on me and I know what it feels like… I think it reassures patients that I understand what they are going through and I try to make them as comfortable as possible because I have been in similar situations.”

As a member of the board of the United States Bone & Joint Initiative, Kirschner has been integral in developing low back pain curriculum for the MSK-Ed education initiative. The medical school course is designed to help students understand back pain better, learn when to refer to a specialist, and which specialists should treat which spine conditions.

When he’s not seeing patients or developing education, Kirschner takes advantage of the outdoors by hiking and mountain biking. He’s also an avid cook, gardener and home fermenter via beer, kimchi and kombucha. He enjoys music and dabbles in freestyle rap, “When it’s the right time and I feel really fine I may drop a spine rhyme for the SpineLine…

Karthik Madhavan, MD

"Has Passion for New Technologies"

Madhavan As a neurosurgery resident at the University of Miami, Karthik Madhavan is getting to do what he loves. Research. Teach. Learn. Innovate.

“I love to teach. Every time I teach, I get the satisfaction of spreading the knowledge and my understanding of the topic improves,” he says. “Whether I am teaching young children or medical students or a resident, the pleasure of sharing and spreading knowledge is one of the best.”

Madhavan also takes great interest in new technologies as it pertains to spine care. It is one of the most fascinating aspects in medicine, he believes.

“Everything I have learned in spine care is due to contributions from surgeons-scientists who worked relentlessly through failures and success to eventually get to where we are,” he says. “The mere fact that I can contribute in such a way that would benefit the future of spine surgeons and patients alike excites me very much. I believe with the current progress in technology we will have lot of automation in surgical techniques with robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) assisted medical record integration and decision-making, and better osteobiologics.”

Madhavan grew up in India, the son of an MD/PhD in neurology. He says growing up around the medical field was a major motivator in him joining the physician ranks. Research wise, he is currently working on outcomes after spine surgery and using national databases for quality outcomes of various spine pathologies.

As co-chair of NASS’ Section on Spinal Cord Injury, Madhavan has enjoyed the collaboration of working with colleagues on a common cause.

“NASS is a very big organization and every meeting has given me new information on progress in spine care,” he says. “I have had the opportunity to work with some of the best spine surgeons and visionaries who have influenced my perception.”

Ankit Mehta, MD

"Uses Chemical Engineering Background to Fight Cancer"

Mehta From a young age, Ankit Mehta, MD, was interested in problem solving. That interest led him to pursue a degree in chemical engineering in his undergraduate studies before receiving an MD from Harvard Medical School and MIT in Health Sciences and Technology Pathway. Of his educational path to medicine, Mehta says “chemical engineering mirrors neurosurgery in many ways. You use basic principles of physics and chemistry to solve real world problems.”

Indeed, Mehta has spent his career focused on spine care, specifically targeting the problem of cancer. Troubled by the poor prognoses of patients with intramedullary spinal cord tumors, or spinal cord-related tumors, he sought a solution. His lab group at the University of Illinois – Chicago has investigated the use of magnetically targeted nanoparticles on tumors and metastases. The thought is this will allow drug delivery to the spinal cord that bypasses the blood brain barrier.

“By utilizing an external magnet and intrathecally injecting magnetic nanoparticles with chemotherapy we can penetrate the tumor andcause cell death. We published this proof of concept study in Nature Scientific Reports and we are currently studying the efficacy and toxicity in a rat model through funding from the international AOSpine Discovery and Therapeutic Grant Award. Our hope is to translate this technology to our patients.”

When looking forward to what’s next for the broader field of spine care technology, Mehta tags artificial intelligence as the future. As algorithms improve, he believes spine patients will undergo procedures that are better tailored to their risk profiles and genetic makeup. This, he believes, will improve outcomes via reduced infection rates, complications and improved functional outcomes.

When he is not providing patient care or in the research lab, Mehta travels and enjoys the outdoors with his wife and family. A history buff, he seeks out destinations with interesting stories to tell about the people and events that make the area meaningful.

Richard Menger, MD

"Co-author of The Business, Policy, and Economics of Neurosurgery"

During his neurosurgery residency program at Louisiana State University, Richard Menger was developing interests outside of traditional medicine. The program sets aside a year for research outside of the operating room, and Menger decided to use the time to obtain a policy degree from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

“Most spend it in the lab or doing clinical research,” Menger says. “My interests were shifting to the socioeconomic milieu of performing surgery. I wanted to become a subject matter expert in that space.”

Mengerr Menger and co-authors Christopher Storey and Anil Nanda later edited a 330-page book titled The Business, Policy, and Economics of Neurosurgery.

“I wanted to understand how people outside of medicine thought, acted, interpreted, planned, and otherwise controlled the delivery of medicine,” he says. “To that effect, the year completely shifted my once siloed perspective on delivering surgical care.”

Now an assistant professor of neurosurgery and an assistant professor of political science at the University of South Alabama, Menger brings a unique perspective to his medical care.

“I was fortunate to join an extraordinary neurosurgery department under the leadership of Dr. Anthony Martino, and I wanted to help drive the academic mission of the university,” Menger says. “To us, that means pushing the field, tracking outcomes, creating processes and tackling the most complex cases.”

In addition to clinical research, Menger authored an interesting article last year in Weekly Standard that took a critical look at the rule prohibiting residents from working more than 80 hours per week. He made the argument that young physicians cannot perfect their craft if they are limited time-wise in how much they learn.

“The argument I made, against the concept of duty hours, was focused on a strong historical economic philosophy based on personal property and of course, data,” he says. “The pendulum may swing back the other way with a little bit more personal flexibility afforded to the resident surgeon, but I fear the signaling repercussions will be long-lasting … I (fear) medicine will continue to pivot to a shift mentality as a job rather than a professional calling.”

Brian Neuman, MD

"Believes in the Power of the Team"

Neuman For Brian Neuman, teamwork is a crucial component to spine care. Whether it’s the physicians he oversees as medical director for his outpatient clinic or the patients they treat, he is a firm believer in developing relationships and ensuring people are heard.

“I believe collaboration and dedication to improvement are the keys to transforming clinic experiences. We start at the core, implementing change in our work culture and listening to feedback from our team. When staff are aligned and empowered, with enhanced day-to-day work flow and efficiency, it allows them to better serve our patients.”

His views on patient care reflect the same ideals of teamwork and partnership that are expressed in his workplace values. His philosophy of care involves developing relationships with patients and understanding their treatment goals to determine the best course of action to improve their quality of life.

In addition to overseeing a busy practice, Neuman is heavily involved in research utilizing the PatientReported Outcomes Measuring Information System (PROMIS). The goal is to identify exactly how patients improve, particularly those with adult spinal deformity.

“We know these patients improve, although data is limited on the timeline of this improvement and what barriers prevent on individual from improving more rapidly than others. Through the work with the International Spine Study Group, we have developed tools to identify surgical parameters, the invasiveness of one’s surgery, and patient parameters, a fragility score. With the use of these scoring systems and assessing patient outcomes, I hope to gain a better understanding on what overall metrics lead to a faster recovery.

“We hear a wealth of anecdotes about patient progress and improvement. However, what we are missing is the background data - from average timeline, to potential barriers, and factors that influence individual recovery. Through work with the International Spine Study Group, we have developed a set of tools and scoring systems to more definitively track and assess patient outcomes. Surgical parameters, such as the level of invasiveness, patient parameters, and a fragility score are all evaluated. I believe these new measures will provide a clearer picture of the correlated metrics and how to speed recuperation.”

Neuman’s love of teamwork even extends to his time away from his busy Baltimore practice, ardently cheering on his beloved Pittsburgh sports teams.

Martin Quirno, MD

"Overcomes Obstacles En Route to Becoming Surgeon"

Martin Quirno graduated from medical school in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2004 and headed for America.

He did not literally throw a dart at the dartboard to select his new city, but he may as well have. The budding doctor picked New York, the biggest and most expensive city the United States has to offer.

Quirno “I still remember arriving at JFK (airport) with only $800 in my pocket,” Quirno says now. “The transition was not easy in the beginning. I worked in a post-doctoral research fellowship for three years and made just enough money to survive. While my closest friends in Buenos Aires were completing their residencies, I was barely scraping by and had a small chance at obtaining a residency spot. I always kept the return flight ticket with me just in case. Now I have it framed to remind me of that difficult but hopeful time.”

Today, Quirno is an orthopedic surgeon at NYU Langone Health. He speaks five languages, treats a multitude of spinal conditions and is an assistant professor in the department of orthopedic surgery.

It is a long way from South America, where Quirno spent the first 25 years of his life. Born in San Paulo, Brazil, his family moved to Argentina when he was 15. As a kid, Quirno helped his parents care for his sister, Mercedes, who was born with a cognitive delay. Mercedes, at left with Quirno, had a friend who suffered from significant neuromuscular scoliosis and seeing the two girls struggle sparked a fuse within Quirno.

“This had a significant impact in my life, wondering if there was something else that we could do to help her,” he says of the friend.

Mercedes currently lives with her parents in Buenos Aires and the siblings remain close.

Alexander E. Ropper, MD

"Recalls Being Surgeon On-Call During Hurricane Harvey"

In late August 2017, Hurricane Harvey touched down in Houston three times over six days. It caused damage to more than 200,000 homes and forced 39,000 people to leave their homes and seek a shelter. Alexander Ropper was the neurosurgeon on-call that week at Baylor College of Medicine, where he still works today.

Ropper “It was a surreal week, where a bustling and crowded city came to a standstill, but luckily, we made it through safely,” Ropper recalls. “I credit the nurses and hospital workers who slept in the hospital for three days straight caring for our patients.”

Ropper recalls his cousin Sarah and her twins, then 5 years old, riding bikes tethered together by ropes to his house because they were flooded outside of theirs. “It made us understand how lucky we were,” he says.

Ropper is also quick to mention luck regarding the success of his young career, but of course, a ton of hard work has buoyed his standing. He received Baylor’s neurosurgery department “Rising Star Award” after his first year at the institution, and has since parlayed it into a new Spine Surgery Fellowship for young physicians at the hospital.

At just 39 years old, Ropper is Baylor’s director of spine surgery.

“I acknowledge the role of luck and timing,” he says. “The former head of spine had to leave our program for family reasons and I felt I had the nascent skills to take this on. I had seen some great leaders throughout my training and tried to emulate their leadership styles. I recognize that spine surgery is a highly technical field, but excellence in the operating room is not enough to make an individual or department great. Care must be patient focused, and surgeons must be patient advocates.”

Grant Shifflett, MD

"Athletic Background Led to Sports & Spine Practice"

Shifflett Growing up in Virginia, Grant Shifflett was a sports-loving kid who participated in golf, basketball, baseball, skiing, football and tennis. His playing days are mostly over, other than golf and tennis, but Shifflett has maintained his close connection with sports and athletes.

Shifflett’s medical training literally took him all over the world. Medical school in California, internship and residency in New York, and a traveling fellowship in complex cervical and reconstructive spinal surgery in Japan prepared him for his position as an orthopedic surgeon at DISC Sports & Spine Center in Newport Beach, Calif.

“The most rewarding and the most challenging parts of the job are one and the same — the patients,” says Shifflett, who has a keen interest in outpatient spine surgery and artificial disc replacement. “Dealing with challenging clinical problems and complex surgical cases is a constant stress and pushes you to be at your highest level all the time which can be taxing. Nothing is more gratifying, though, than seeing your efforts allow patients to get back to doing what they love.”

Shifflett also works with Red Bull athletes of North America and is a volunteer physician for the AVP Pro Volleyball Tour. The head of DISC is renowned surgeon Robert Bray, MD, who has worked with numerous famous athletes, including Olympic track star Lolo Jones and hockey star Sidney Crosby.

After working with many excellent physicians, Shifflett does not downplay the importance of having mentors in the field.

“The importance of maintaining a mentor/mentee relationship into practice is huge,” Shifflett says. “While you’re a resident and a fellow you constantly have someone pushing you every day to do the right thing and to grow as a surgeon. Once you are in practice, you are left to your own devices and are only as good as you motivate yourself to be. There is no substitute for selfdetermination and motivation, but I cannot overstate the importance of maintaining and/or seeking out mentors in practice.”

Gbolabo Sokunbi, MD

"Hopes to Improve Medical Care in Native Nigeria"

When you live and work in America, it can be easy to forget that we enjoy luxuries, and sometimes basic necessities, that do not exist in other parts of the world.

Sokunbi Born in Dallas and raised in Nigeria, Gbolabo Sokunbi knows both sides of this situation. An orthopedic surgeon at St. Luke’s Orthopedic Care in Bethlehem, PA, Sokunbi appreciates the convenience of a modern American health care institution, but also remains mindful of the difficulties that physicians and patients face more than 5,000 miles away in Nigeria.

“The challenges are numerous, from lack of basic amenities including reliable power and clean water to availability of medicines,” he says. “The majority of the hospitals lack the needed amenities to run a hospital efficiently including oxygen, blood bank services, etc.

“There may be fewer than 100 working MRIs to service the entire population. The cost of the equipment needed to perform complex surgeries is also a huge barrier. My hope is to continue to collaborate with physicians here in the states, internationally and in Nigeria to advance the field gradually via education first, donations of medical supplies and even surgeries.”

As an orthopedic resident at Temple University in Philadelphia, Sokunbi trained under former NASS president F. Todd Wetzel. He says he learned more than surgical techniques in the many hours they spent together.

“Despite his numerous accomplishments as a surgeon, educator and scholar, he always addressed every patient as "sir" or "ma’am" regardless of social or demographic differences,” he says of Wetzel. “He treated all with dignity.”

Sokunbi says his professional goal for the next several years is reversing some of the negative publicity that spine surgery has generated in the media.

“This I imagine can only be accomplished with practicing evidence-based medicine, extremely careful patient selection to improve outcomes with an emphasis on patient and doctor education, here in the states and internationally.”

Anand Veeravagu, MD

"Medicine Takes Him Around the World"

Veeravagu Writing speeches for the Secretary of Defense and working on counterterrorism efforts against biological warfare aren’t items typical to a physician’s CV, but they both appear on Anand Veeravagu’s. As a White House fellow, he traveled the globe with Defense Secretary, managing medical-related issues and informing decision-making on resource allocation for patients with traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury and PTSD.

DC was just one stop in Veeravagu’s extraordinary life. He was born in Oklahoma, but spent the bulk of his life in Texas and California, noting the latter is where he considers home, in part because it’s where he met his wife and started his family. It’s also where he currently practices and conducts research, as part of Stanford University.

Veeravagu’s current research is focused on capturing data which could inform decisions and the way physicians advise patients. “My research is focused on understanding how we can use hundreds of thousands of data points to make algorithms that help us predict which patients may suffer from a complication and how we can improve the chances of the surgery helping them. We attempt to understand all of this data by using machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligence to build neural networks that are capable of discovering things that we may have never associated as being related or contributory to how a patient recovers. This can be anything from a relationship of different types of diseases, like whether they have diabetes and heart disease or the type of family support a patient has at home.”

Outside of his work life, Veeravagu spends time with his family and enjoys squeezing in time to exercise whenever possible. He also spends a great deal of time on medical missions and looks forward to his kids being old enough to join him and support those missions.

Corinna Zygourakis, MD

"Daughter of Greek Immigrants, Was Destined to Be a Doctor"

At the elementary school she attended in Houston, Corinna Zygourakis was asked each year what she wanted to be when she grew up. As a kindergartener, it was an Olympic figure skater. In first grade, a pilot.

Zygourakis But in second grade, out of the blue she says, Zygourakis declared she wanted to be a brain surgeon.

“Apparently, when I said this at the school assembly, all the parents laughed,” she recalled. “It is funny to think that nearly 30 years later, that is what I have ended up doing.”

All these years later, Zygourakis is a neurosurgeon at Stanford. The daughter of Greek immigrants, she was profiled in a 2004 New York Times article about elite universities vying for her enrollment thanks to incredible grades, test scores and work experience. She chose Caltech because it offered free tuition.

Now she is putting that hard work to practice.

“One of my favorite aspects of being a doctor is doing challenging surgeries with my hands that involve the latest technologies,” Zygourakis says. “For example, I’ve been really excited to incorporate CT-guided navigation, robotics and machine-vision guided radiation free navigation into my spine practice over the last couple of years.”

Prior to working at Stanford, Zygourakis had the opportunity to do a medical mission trip to Guadalajara, Mexico for a week during her residency. Accompanying one of her mentors, Dr. Michael Lawton, to a large city hospital proved to be a terrific experience.

“It was an eye-opening experience for me to see how they performed complex aneurysm and brain tumor cases with many fewer resources, but still with excellent technique and outcomes,” she says. “This made me realize that we can probably do a lot of the things that we are doing in the United States with less waste, inspiring much of my research work on health care value.”