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The Making of a Neurosurgeon: Dr. Neil Feldstein

cranio“I don’t remember really ever wanting to do anything other than medicine and specifically neurosurgery,” says Neil A. Feldstein, M.D., F.A.C.S., Associate Professor of Neurological Surgery and Director of Pediatric Neurological Surgery at Columbia University.

“Way back when others wanted to drive firetrucks and be policemen I wanted to be a neurosurgeon.” When he would tell people, he says, “Most laughed. They’d say, ‘That’s absurd, you haven’t even finished Junior High yet.’ I just thought it was the most challenging field available and I wanted to challenge myself as much as I could.”

As it turned out, Neurosurgery was the perfect fit. “I am lucky that I actually liked it because I didn’t really understand what it was until I got into medical school,” he laughs.

Feldstein attended New York University medical school in the early eighties. He says,“Back then, NYU had some flamboyant and famous neurosurgeons and they became great role models for me. I would escape whenever I could from my regular rotations and visit the neurosurgery operating room. On my vacations, I would volunteer in the Neurosurgery Department.”

For his neurosurgery residency, Dr. Feldstein chose Baylor in Houston. “Things have changed, but at the time it was really the busiest clinical program in the country with the most arduous call schedule in the country. This seemed like the hardest residency to get through. Non stop blistering pace. It fit the bill.”

“Residency was six grueling years but great,” says Dr. Feldstein. “ I loved Texas. The program was everything I wanted and I found it a fabulous environment for learning.”

It was late in his residency that he decided to go into pediatrics. He says,“Within weeks of the rotation it was very clear that this was something I was good at and something I enjoyed doing. It just felt right. It is corny but it’s like when you meet the right person you want to spend the rest of your life with. No one has to explain it. You just know this is who you are and this is what you want to do.”

Dr. Feldstein was, in fact, able to share this decision with the person he had made such a commitment to, his wife. She had traveled with him to Baylor for his residency. “She put up with Texas for six years–that’s a lot for a girl from Manhattan,” says Dr. Feldstein. There was no question that they would return to New York when his residency ended and Dr. Feldstein says he was lucky to land a Fellowship in Pediatric Neurosurgery at his old Alma-mater NYU. “It was a good year,” he says, “and it confirmed my commitment to pediatric neurosurgery.”

When his fellowship ended, he took a job in central New Jersey, where he still has an office. After several years in private practice, Dr. Feldstein says he missed teaching and being in a major academic medical center. So, when a position in the Department of Neurosurgery at Columbia University came up he jumped on it.

He was hired by then-chairman, Dr. Ben Stein and after just one month, the Department’s Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery stepped down and Dr. Feldstein was promoted to the job.

“I still love neurosurgery today like I loved it 25 years ago. At Columbia I am exposed to young neurosurgeons eager to master this field. They ask tough questions. They read the newest literature, you have to know the answer. These people push us. They challenge our statements and make us justify why we do things. That makes coming to work everyday a lot of fun.

More than that though,” he says, “I get to do something that helps people and their families, obviously at times of greatest stress. That is very rewarding.” His work with patients provides a continual challenge. “Any given day you can see something quite unique and new,” he says. Like a puzzle, he is constantly searching for any missing pieces.

“I can spend countless hours in the operating room barely moving a muscle under the microscope,” he says. “It is very exacting; the combination of puzzle solving, the unique nature of the equipment we get to use, and the inherent unknown of our specialty.”

“I never want to stop learning. I push myself,” says Dr. Feldstein, who seeks out challenges when he is not working as well. “I love what I do during the day and I really enjoy what I do after work and on the weekends.” He has a keen interest in fine woodworking, wood turning and computer graphics (see our blog: Dr. Feldstein’s Annual Picture is our ‘Macy’s Day Parade’). He also says he loves puzzles. The harder the better and after a quick calculation in his head, he says, “I think the number is 10,000.”–New York Times crossword puzzles solved, that is.

Dr. Feldstein muses, “It’s easy to say, ‘Follow your dreams.’ to people that are coming up, but it is nice when you are actually able to and your dreams are actually worth following. I am very fortunate and I don’t forget for one moment how lucky I am.”

He makes a special point of mentioning the contribution his wife and children have made to his work. “All these years, to put up with my hours and my schedule,” he says. “I rarely take vacations. We are always here to take care of things. My wife is a saint. She deserves unbelievable credit,” he says. “She has just learned to live with me. My family understands that it’s just who I am and what I have to do.”

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