Dr. Keith Black is one of the world’s most talented brain surgeons, known for working with the most difficult of brain tumors. In fact, he just may be the best period.
Consider there are about 5,000 neurosurgeons working in the U.S. today and nearly all, about 4,900 concentrate on the spine and deal on average with only five or six brain tumors a year. The remaining 100 or so routinely work inside the skull, and half specialize in tumors. That leaves only 50 who can truly be considered brain-tumor specialists, averaging 100 surgeries every year. But Dr. Black and a few peers average about 250 brain surgeries annually. An elite group for sure. Dr. Black is the surgeon who brings hope to cases other physicians write off as hopeless. He is the doctor who sees patients all around the globe from, Europe, the Middle East to South America and Japan. He is that good!
So it begs the question, how did the good doctor get to be so exceptional? As if on cue, Dr. Black credits both his parents. His mother was a teacher and his father was school principal, both he says were “the ultimate educators.”
In reflecting on his upbringing in Tuskegee, Alabama, he recalled how his early interest in science was nurtured by his parents. “I was lucky to have parents who were focused on being supportive.” Always interested in how things worked, Black shared the time his mother was in the kitchen cleaning chicken for dinner.
“I asked could I have the heart, she gave it to me, I took it outside and dissected it. Later, my dad saw how into it I was and gave me a turkey heart from the store and from there I got a heart from a cow at the slaughter house. There was always an environment for learning.”
Later, he would complete an accelerated college program at the University of Michigan and earn both his undergraduate and medical degrees in six years. Accomplished by nearly every objective measure, Dr. Black has pioneered research on designing ways to open the blood-brain barrier, enabling chemotherapeutic drugs to be delivered directly into the tumor. Dr. Black’s other groundbreaking research has focused on developing a vaccine to enhance the body’s immune response to brain tumors, use of gene arrays to develop molecular profiles of tumors, the use of optical technology for brain mapping, and the use of focused microwave energy to non-invasively destroy brain tumors. And in addition, since 1987 he’s performed more than 5,000 operations for resection of brain tumors. The family man who likely understands the fragile circle of life more than most told me how he manages the losses that come with the high risk surgeries.
“It’s a delicate balance—you have to understand the perspective of life and none of us are going to live forever. You do the absolutely best you can for every patient. If I say I cannot cure that cancer, and you’ve done all you can, it’s still something to feel good about. If the patient dies but you can give them another 6 months, another year, more quality of life…that’s really important. You cherish those times as well.”
The exclusive conversation with Dr. Black continues. He comments on health disparities among African Americans, healthcare reform, and more!
Keith L. Black, MD, serves as Chairman and Professor of the Department of Neurosurgery, Director of Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute
and Director of Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. Brain Tumor Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He is also author of Brain Surgeon: A Doctor’s Inspiring Encounters with Mortality and Miracles. Be the very first person to comment on how Dr. Black inspires and we’ll send you a signed copy of his autobiography, Brain Surgeon for free! Just e-mail your full name and address to email@example.com.