The Making of a Pediatric Neurosurgeon: Dr. Richard Anderson
Dr. Richard Anderson always knew he would probably end up working with kids somehow. What he didn’t know was that he was going to be a pediatric Neurosurgeon at one of the most prestigious hospitals in the country.
“My mother always told me that I was going to take care of children one day,” says Dr. Anderson. “Whenever we would go to family events or visit friends, even as I got older, I always entertained the children. I’ve always believed that the most important and noble profession is raising children and being a parent.”
Today Richard C.E. Anderson, M.D., F.A.C.S., F.A.A.P. is an assistant professor of neurological surgery at Columbia University Medical Center and the Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of New York. He has a thriving practice at their Pediatric Neurosurgery Center.
Of course, it is no small step to go from having a natural connection with children to becoming an esteemed pediatric neurosurgeon; it required very hard work.
Right out of high school he won the prestigious Boettcher Foundation scholarship, a Colorado foundation that awards scholarships based on the Rhodes model. This awarded him a complete scholarship to the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU), where he graduated at the top of his class. At CU he says, “I was fortunate enough to study under Dr. David Prescott, a distinguished professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology. He taught me intellectual curiosity and scientific discipline.”
In addition to running his own laboratory, Dr. Prescott was a very popular teacher. His yearly lecture, Biology of the Cancer Cell, had standing room only. He was so highly respected and approachable that although he was not a physician, after his lecture on skin cancer, “students would line up to have him look at a spot on their back or arm or somewhere else and ask if it looked concerning,” says Dr. Anderson. “When I saw this, I went up and asked him if I could work in his lab.”
Over the next few years, Dr. Anderson worked in the lab with Dr. Prescott and his wife Gail Prescott, who managed the lab. Gail Prescott remembers, “We had a lot of students in our lab. Richard was my all time favorite student that came through. He was always a very kind and warm person. He’s a hard worker, very focused. A really nice person too.”
Dr. Anderson remembers one particular day when he was a junior: “Dr. Prescott came up behind me while I was conducting an experiment and he said, ‘So Richard, what do you think you want to do when you graduate from college?’ ‘Well Dr. Prescott,’ I said, ‘I think I’d like to go to medical school.’ He paused a moment, let out a long breath, put his head down, and shook it back and forth. Then he said, ‘Well. . . that’s too bad.’
“Not the usual reaction to wanting to go to medical school,” laughs Dr. Anderson now. “Dr. Prescott wanted me to become a basic science researcher like him but, all kidding aside, he and his wife Gail were wonderful, great supporters of mine.” To honor them, Dr. Anderson set up an undergraduate scholarship at the University of Colorado that is awarded to a deserving student each year in Dr. Prescott’s name. “We used to pick all the awardees,” says Mrs. Prescott. “It was very nice for David during his lifetime to award scholarships to these students.” Sadly, Dr. Prescott passed away in 2011.
In May of 1993, Dr. Anderson was named the top student out of over 6500 undergraduates in the School of Arts and Sciences. The following September he moved to Baltimore, Maryland where he entered Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
“I have always been a very technical person. I played the violin for about 15 years and have always been a person who likes to work with my hands. So, when I finally got through the basic sciences and got into the clinical rotations, I spent some time on neurosurgery. It was elegant and sophisticated and there was an enormous amount to be learned about the way the brain functions. There was no question, this was what I wanted to do.”
He applied to the neurosurgical residency program at Columbia University Medical Center. “I never thought I was going to end up at Columbia,” he says. “There were nine medical students from Columbia going into neurosurgery the year I applied and they were only going to take one resident.” He applied anyway and was accepted into the program.
Over the next seven years, Dr. Anderson’s fascination with neuroscience and his partiality towards pediatrics began to coalesce. “I realized after the second or third year of residency that during the neurosurgery clinics I would always look through the patient charts and find the children to see. The children were so innocent and often afraid, and I wanted to help them. I knew that if these children were in the neurosurgery clinic, there was no place in the world they would like to be less.” He saw that understanding this made all the difference to the children and their parents.
When Dr. Anderson finished his residency, he accepted a pediatric neurosurgery fellowship at the Primary Children’s Medical Center at the University of Utah School of Medicine. He says, “Dr. Doug Brockmeyer was the leader in developing techniques for pediatric spinal instrumentation and stabilization there, and that is one of the reasons I went out to Utah.”
“Dr. Anderson is sort of the benchmark by which we judge our fellows today,” says Dr. Brockmeyer, professor of neurosurgery and program director at the University of Utah. “He is very intelligent and highly motivated. Just a really amazing person to be around and a very skilled surgeon. He is a really good communicator with patients and their families. He is just very human–unpretentious. What you see is what you get. He is not arrogant in any way. That comes across positively when he talks to kids and parents. Plus, he was incredibly smart and well trained. It was a joy to have him here for the year. I don’t think there has been a year quite like it, to be honest. He came out and really set it on fire. It was fantastic.”
Also in the Utah group was Dr. Marion “Jack” Walker, of whom Dr. Anderson says, “He was chief of the division there and I really learned a lot from him, especially in the way he interacted with families; he’s like a grandpa, so gentle and kind.” Dr. Walker knows Dr. Anderson very well. “Rich was very special, full of energy, always had a smile, always trying to help somebody get out of a spot. He was also truly an excellent surgeon. Parents loved him because he had that ability to connect right away. That is such an important thing for fellows to learn. They come here already pretty accomplished surgeons, but you have to be able to interact with families.”
Dr. Anderson was offered a job in the Department of Neurosurgery at Columbia University Medical Center/New York Presbyterian hospital when his fellowship was competed. From his early days as a resident at Columbia, Dr. Anderson had admired Dr. Neil Feldstein, associate professor of neurological surgery and director of pediatric neurological surgery. Still on faculty, Dr. Feldstein had been looking for a partner to join him at the Pediatric Neurosurgery Center and when he and his colleagues in the department offered him the job, Dr. Anderson gladly accepted.
Dr. Anderson has made considerable contributions to the services Columbia now provides children. He started an extensive multidisciplinary spasticity program and in particular introduced several new minimally invasive surgical skills he mastered during his fellowship in Utah.
Dr. Anderson says he loves his job. “As a pediatric neurosurgeon”, he says, “Every day is different. You do everything. Other disciplines within neurosurgery focus on just one thing: brain tumors, endovascular, peripheral nerves, spine, etc. In pediatrics you have the opportunity to do everything. . .take out complicated brain tumors, perform difficult spinal procedures, use the endoscope in the brain, and other amazing things.”
The way children and their families are cared for at Columbia and the Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of New York is in line with Dr. Anderson’s own philosophies. He says, “The entire hospital is centered around children and their families. They let parents come into the operating room before surgery and then sleep next to their children in the rooms afterward. The nurses are so good at talking with and taking care of the children and their families.”
At Columbia, all parents and children over 18 must sign a consent form before any surgery. “They are given every piece of information they need. I am a parent of four children,” says Dr. Anderson. “If it were me, I would want to know absolutely every thing. But it is different with young children; I don’t think the children need to know all of that information. I think it is important that children know they are going to have a procedure while they are asleep and that they will be in the hospital with their parents. Otherwise, they are going to wake up even more frightened.
But sometimes it’s difficult to know exactly how much to tell them. That’s why I tell all the young children the same thing: I explain to them that I know they have a problem that is bothering them, and that I think we can make it better, but the only way we can do that is with a procedure. I say, ‘You are going to come here in the morning and mom and dad are going to be with you the whole time. Then you are going to see me again and meet a bunch of my friends. Next you are going to go into the operating room, where mom and dad can be with you until you go to sleep. After you go to sleep, you are going to wake up, and then your going to see me, and I’m gonna say “hi”. Then you are going to say “hi,” and then your going to ask me when are we doing the procedure, and I’m going to say, “it’s all done.”’”
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