Pediatric neurosurgeon Mike Handler was having a quiet afternoon in his office, reviewing x-rays of small skulls and young spines, when the phone rang.
“I think you better get down here,” said the caller. The caller was a nurse, and “here” was Operating Room 6 at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
Handler hurried to the O.R., where a baby was on the table, undergoing craniofacial surgery. Besides the baby, he saw grim surgeons and nurses … and blood. Lots of blood.
“There was a hole, laceration, in the superior sagittal sinus,” Handler recalls. “That’s a big vein—nearly the size of drinking straw—and they can’t stop the bleeding. They’re giving the baby lots of blood, but the baby’s losing lots of blood. And the problem with babies is, the blood pressure can drop fast and they can die very quickly.”
Handler scrubbed in and took charge.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” he explains. “Plus, I’m not in the throes of the crisis. I can walk in, assess the situation and come up with a plan to fix things.”
The simplest fix would have entailed suturing one side of the laceration to the other, but Handler ruled that out.
“It would have narrowed the vein,” he says, limiting blood flow and endangering the baby’s brain.
Instead, he patched the vein like a leaky inner tube, stitching absorbable packing material over the gap. The patch held, the bleeding stopped and the baby stabilized. Handler cleaned up, returned to his office and resumed reviewing x-rays, pleased to have snatched another life from the jaws of death.
A 34-year rush
Not every story ends happily, of course. After 34 years as a neurosurgeon, Handler is painfully aware of how quickly things can go wrong. Case in point: A recent cancer patient who was rushed to the E.R. with a brain bleed.
“We got him in right away,” he says. “We had him in the CT scanner in two minutes, and he was in the O.R. a few minutes after that. Technically, the surgery was a success. We did everything exactly right. But that was two weeks ago, and he’s still not awake.”
So Handler waits—“it’s nerve-wracking,” he says—and watches, and holds out hope the patient will yet awaken. Meanwhile, he keeps going back to the O.R.—keeps scrubbing in—despite everything he knows about what can go wrong.
“Doing neurosurgery is a lot like rock climbing,” he says. “You have to be very aware of everything around you. You have to be intensely focused and deliberate and direct and decisive. And you can’t do it if you’re terrified.”
Slouching in his office in rumpled blue scrubs, Handler finger-combs his hair and shifts from the somber shadows to the sunny side of the street once more.
“To scrub in and pull things back from the brink—it’s a rush. Collaborating with researchers to change the field—to understand what causes tumors to grow, what causes seizures, and how we can do a better job of treating those things—that jazzes me. And to be at Children’s Colorado, where the culture is all about making kids’ lives better? That’s fabulous.”