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The Making of a Neurosurgeon: Dr. Christopher Winfree

Two things can be said of neurosurgeon Christopher Winfree; he is focused, and he hates the word “no”. “I know what I want and I am going to do it,” he says, “ I just systematically take steps to make it happen.”

“As a kid,” Winfree says, “ I made a long list of things I wanted to do in my life and I have systematically gone through it.” These things included becoming a doctor and running a marathon.  “I’ve checked all kinds of (things) off my life list,” says Dr. Winfree.

He decided to become a doctor in the sixth grade. “I was a boy scout learning first aid,” he says. “It was a moment of clarity I had at that time and I never wavered. There were no doctors in the family. I just realized that dealing with trauma, injuries, sickness–that was what I was going to do. That is the story of my life. I’ve always been sure of stuff.”

As a junior high student in Florida, Dr. Winfree decided he was going to be a neurosurgeon; a shortage of neurosurgeons was making front page news and he says he became fascinated with brain surgery. “I didn’t have to put a lot of thought into it. It was just, ‘BOOM! I’m going to be a neurosurgeon and I’ll do whatever steps I need to do.’”

Dr. Winfree was systematic in his approach, he says. “I was never looking too far ahead because I always had the comfort of knowing what I was going to do. I just had to worry about getting to the next step. When I was in high school, I was getting into college–a good college. When I was in college, I was getting into med school.”

Dr. Winfree attended medical school here at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. That was where he first met Dr. E. Sander Connolly from the Department of Neurosurgery.

Dr. Connolly, who is now the Bennett M. Stein Professor of Neurological Surgery here at Columbia, says, “In 1995 I was a resident running this lab here and Chris was a medical student in the lab. It was a fun and productive experience together. We had a great time.”

Dr. Winfree once took an Arctic expedition – it was on his list.  “Not the whole Arctic,” Dr. Winfree says. “Just a week or so driving a sled and surviving solo.” That arctic expedition was hard but, in many ways not nearly as hard as what he faced next in becoming a neurosurgery resident.

“I was almost a neurosurgeon and for the first time in my life,” he says, “I didn’t’ have a clue.  I had this plan to be a neurosurgeon since I was a kid and I was almost there and I thought, ‘what am I going to do now?’”

So, true to form, he sat down and made a list. A new life list. “That is when I decided, I wanted to work here at Columbia,” he says. “I wanted a job here and I wanted to do peripheral nerve surgery. I told [current Head of the Department of Neurosurgery] Bob Solomon what I wanted and he helped me get a peripheral nerve fellowship and a pain fellowship.”

Dr. Winfree was hired here at the Department of Neurosurgery and currently heads the Peripheral Nerve Center and the Pain Center. “I was basically hired for entertainment value–that is, at least, partially true,” he laughs.

“It has turned out that way,” says Dr. Connolly. “But it is not why we hired him. He is a very talented and committed physician and we had a spot for him to do something that we really weren’t doing at the time.”

That something was Dr. Winfree’s subspecialties of pain and peripheral nerve surgery. “A lot of it can be really complicated, requiring three dimensional thinking–all these nerves wrapping around muscles and bones,” he says. “I like pushing the envelope, using new technology to make the situation as safe as possible, doing things that no one has done before, and seeing the patients get better.”

“He is excellent with his patients,” says Dr. Connolly. “Very focused. Very intense. His patients love him. Unless something is perfect he won’t let it go.  That extends into the operating room.  He is very thorough.  Pathologically and obsessively thorough.”

As for that list he made as a junior resident, he is still at it. “There are a few more things I want to do,” he says. “I still want to have kids, ice dive in the arctic, go to Antarctica.”

Dr. Winfree says, “I love what I am doing. I have my dream job. I am surrounded by excellence. It has been a privilege to work here.”

patient journey

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