HOTSEAT- Head case: Kassell mends brain woes

"It's not brain surgery."

Neal Kassell's profession is the standard by which intelligence and aptitude are measured. We've even built colloquialisms around it. Not bad, eh? for a guy who had trouble finishing high school.

Kassell says he barely managed to scrape his way out of 12th grade– mostly because of attendance issues– but he was eventually admitted to the University of Pennsylvania's medical school. At the University of Iowa a few years later, Kassell received a job offer from UVA hospital that really made his ears perk up.   

"I realized that if I brought my program here and merged with what was already in place, we would have the best neurosurgery program in the world," he says. He was excited about combining his own research and clinical work in the area of strokes and aneurysms with that of Dr. John Jane, a leading neurosurgeon already at UVA. The two co-chaired the department until this past summer, when they simultaneously stepped down and passed the torch.

"It has liberated a huge amount of my time and creative energy to allow me to pursue some research objectives," Kassell says of his "retirement."   

During their time as co-chairs, however, the two men built an empire. "When I came here in 1984, the number of aneurysms that were being done were 25-30 a year," Kassell says. "Last year we did more than 180. The rest of the program has grown as well, from four neurosurgeons to 10, and from 750 major operations to 3,300 a year. We added people so that we have expertise and depth in every major neurosurgery sub-specialty."

Kassell rattles off names at 90 mph: Ed Laws, Ladislau Steiner, Chris and Mark Shaffrey, and numerous others.   

Now Charlottesville is one of the neurosurgery world's most respected centers, and physicians in the program Kassell helped build see patients from all over the globe.    

One of Kassell's most promising areas of study is MRI-guided focused ultrasound, which uses intersecting beams of ultrasound energy to destroy tissue with pinpoint accuracy.

"In the future, it will also be used for precisely delivering drugs, to dissolve blood clots in blood vessels and restore flow to previously obstructed arteries," Kassell explains. "This has the potential to be the most important therapeutic technology since the invention of the scalpel.

 "We're still in the early stages, and it will take ten years and billions of dollars of investment before it becomes mainstream. But we're working at the right point on the curve. It's the most exciting thing I've ever been involved with."

Age: 36 (You're only as old as the woman you feel.)

Why here: Recruited by UVA

What's worst about living here: Having to leave for business trips

Favorite hang out: My back porch in the summer and my kitchen in the winter   

Most over-rated virtue: Being too nice   

People would be surprised to know: As a single parent, I raised three very successful daughters from the ages of 5, 7, and 9.

What would you change about yourself: No more Mr. Nice Guy   

Proudest accomplishment: Research on aneurysms

contributing to a reduction in mortality from more than 40 percent to less than 10 percent

People find most annoying about you: I'm almost always right.   

Whom do you admire: Ataturk   

Favorite book: Machiavelli's The Discourses and The Prince  

Subject that causes you to rant: Bureaucratic intrusions into the practice of medicine that compromise the ability to properly care for patients   

Biggest 21st century thrill: Medical technology and drugs that can dramatically improve the outcome in desperately ill patients   

Biggest 21st century creep-out: Religious fundamentalism and intolerance leading to the clash of civilizations and World War III  

What do you drive?: Porsche

In your car CD player right now: Boccherini, "A Night Walk in Madrid"   

Next journey: Venice   

Most trouble you've ever gotten in: Getting married   

Regret: Not having met Lee, my girlfriend of two and a half years, earlier in my life   

Favorite comfort food: Duck risotto   

Always in your refrigerator: Iced tea

Must see TV: Live coverage of a war   

Describe a perfect day: Successfully operating on a patient who was deemed inoperable by other surgeons, a long hike in the mountains, talking to my three daughters and five grandchildren, a dinner with

great wine, great food, and great conversation with Lee and two to four friends, accompanied by classical music, and finally intimate time alone with Lee.    Walter Mitty fantasy: Conducting Beethoven's 9th

Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra   

Who would play you in the movie: Klaus Kinsky   

Most embarrassing moment: Finding myself locked out of my hotel room unclothed   

Best advice you ever got: Every day do something to make the world a better place and yourself a better person.   

Favorite bumper sticker: More people have died in Teddy Kennedy's car than in all nuclear power plant accidents.   

Neal Kassell



1 comment

This guy clipped an aneurysm in my brain in 1979 at the U of Iowa..I owe him my life.

He gave me the chance to raise my daughter, and enjoy my two grandchildren.

He's got the biggest ego of anyone I've ever met and deserves to own it!