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Dr. Charles Wilson Had Surgical Intuition, "Sort of an Invisible Hand"



(p. A19) Dr. Wilson sometimes worked in three operating rooms simultaneously: Residents would surgically open and prepare patients for his arrival, and he would then enter to seal an aneurysm or remove a tumor before moving on to the next case.

"He never spent much more than 30 or 60 minutes on each case, and we were left to close the case and make sure everything was O.K.," Dr. Mitchel Berger, a former resident who is chairman of U.C.S.F.'s neurosurgical department, said in an interview. "It was unorthodox, but it worked. He demanded excellence and we gave him excellence."

They also gave him silence. He allowed no music, no ringing phones and no idle chatter. Scrub nurses were expected to anticipate his requests.

"He would manage any break of silence with a stern look," said Dr. Brian Andrews, a neurosurgeon who was one of Dr. Wilson's residents and also his biographer, with the book "Cherokee Surgeon" (2011). (Dr. Wilson was one-eighth Cherokee.)

Dr. Wilson became world renowned for excising pituitary tumors through the sinus in a surgery called transsphenoidal resection.


. . .


The writer Malcolm Gladwell, in a profile of Dr. Wilson in The New Yorker in 1999, described one of those pituitary cancer surgeries. Looking at a tumor through a surgical microscope, Dr. Wilson used an instrument called a ring curette to peel the tumor from the gland.

"It was, he would say later, like running a squeegee across a windshield," Mr. Gladwell wrote, "except that in this case, the windshield was a surgical field one centimeter in diameter, flanked on either side by the carotid arteries, the principal sources of blood to the brain."

A wrong move could nick an artery or damage a nerve, endangering the patient's vision or his life.

When Dr. Wilson saw bleeding from one side of the gland, he realized that he had not gotten all of the tumor. He found it and removed it. The surgery took only 25 minutes.

Dr. Wilson performed the surgery more than 3,300 times.

He told Mr. Gladwell that he had a special feel for surgery that he could not entirely explain.

"It's sort of an invisible hand," he said. "It begins almost to seem mystical. Sometimes a resident asks, 'Why did you do that?' " His response, he told Mr. Gladwell, was to shrug and say, "Well, it just seemed like the right thing."



For the full obituary, see:

Richard Sandomir. "'Charles Wilson, 88, Lauded For Excising Brain Tumors, Sometimes Several in a Day." The New York Times (Monday, March 5, 2018): A19.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date March 2, 2018, and has the title "'Charles Wilson, Top Brain Surgeon and Researcher, Dies at 88.")


The biography of Wilson, mentioned above, is:

Andrews, Brian T. Cherokee Neurosurgeon: A Biography of Charles Byron Wilson, M.D. Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011.







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