Eben Alexander III, MD: How Education Paved The Way To His Career

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Where did you receive your [college] education? What is your highest level of education?

Any success in life through benefits I bring to this world, I attribute to the gift of my education. I was in the same school (Summit School in Winston-Salem, NC) for 11 years (pre-K -9, 1958-69), thus benefitting from a stable learning environment without much shift in the quality of my teachers and fellow students. I then spent three years at the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire (1969-72), which I regard as one of the most challenging, and fruitful (while somewhat frustrating), periods of my formal education. Although my overall grade point average at Exeter was not one for which I could claim much pride, the blood, sweat and tears that went into those three years, and the opportunity to work with many brilliant teachers and fellow students, stand as a milestone in my years of formative study. Those were times of turmoil in our world at large, when the country was ripped apart over the Viet Nam conflict. Despite the formidable education I received at Exeter, I departed with no affinity for the “Ivy League.”

I set my sights on returning to my roots in the South, with high hopes of gaining admission to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill (UNC). I started at UNC with an interest in astrophysics, but then settled down to the very practical plan of majoring in chemistry with the goal of attending medical school (1972-75). Many of the fondest memories from my youth are associated with my time at UNC. While enjoying the fruits of a first-rate education, I also found UNC to be a rich source of community and fellowship. And, several professors are still foremost in my mind when I consider the extraordinary gifts received from these mentors over the years.

After applying to several medical schools around the country, I was rewarded with an offer to attend one of the top such institutions in the world, Duke University School of Medicine (1976-80). Although just 12 miles down the road from UNC, Duke was light-years away in ideology. Duke and UNC were arch-rivals in athletics, so many of my friends doubted my sanity when I sat in the Duke student section with other “Cameron Crazies” and actually cheered on their ultimate foe, UNC!

Duke had recently initiated a “New Pathway” program that bucked the standard system in place in almost all western medical schools. Most medical schools devoted the first two years to basic science, the last two years to clinical pursuits. Duke, however, crammed sufficient basic science into the first year (11 months of intense study) to allow students to enjoy clinical studies in their second year. All of us were chomping at the bit to get out of the classroom and involved with patient care, so this early entry into the clinical world was a real boon to our spirits. Then, in this novel approach, we would return to study basic sciences in more depth in the third year, with the wisdom of second year clinical experience to help guide our studies, before completing clinical studies in the fourth year.

Many students, including myself, elected to spend much of that third year in the laboratory working on a project, so that we had an early introduction to the scientific-research arm of academic medicine. Duke pictured itself as a leading academic medical school chiefly interested in producing the future scientific leaders of medicine, and this New Pathway was a very effective way to foster such a rich environment for the scientific improvement of medical practice. My lab project involved developing an animal model (in rats) to assess the functional neuroanatomy of the hypothalamic-pituitary axis in the suppression of leutinizing and foillicle-stimulating hormone (LH and FSH) release in response to tetrahydrocannibinol (THC).

The project involved neurosurgery on the rats to create the model, and I found the accompanying courses, research activities and lab discussions with peers to be a very rich and exciting environment in which to work. That experience cemented my interest in pursuing academic medicine, and especially to devoting my life to the overall improvement of neurosurgical (and medical) practice.

What was your favorite course you took? Why?

I was blessed with many enlightened teachers and mentors, and thus find the task of defining a “favorite” to be quite challenging, although several stand out as contenders. Notable mention must go to: Freshman seminar in Special Relativity Physics; Meteorology; and Physical Chemistry for the Life Sciences, probably my favorite course in my major, taught by professor Hank Dearman (who I found out 33 years later to be first cousins with my then-unknown-to-me birth mother – a fascinating synchronicity, but that’s another story). Also, see below.

Do you feel that your education properly prepared you for your career?

Yes, I feel my education was an outstanding gift that prepared me for a career in neurosurgery, as well as for my current role in expanding the scientific paradigm around the understanding of the mind-brain relationship and the very nature of consciousness itself. Much of the coursework might seem superficial or extraneous to my academic neurosurgical career, yet I would not trade any part of it.

While I was at UNC pursuing a course of pre-med studies, it was my father (an academic neurosurgeon of the highest caliber) who advised me to seek a Bachelor of Arts (AB) in chemistry, not a Bachelor of Science (BS), because he knew I would take all the necessary science in medical school – he encouraged me to obtain as broad a liberal arts education as I could. Because my excellent education at Exeter afforded me advanced placement, I graduated a semester early from UNC. I then worked at the hospital on a research project. In my spare time, I also audited three courses from professors under whom I had always wanted to study, but that I simply could not fit into my schedule prior to graduation.

Those courses were among the best I ever took: American Military History Civil War to Present (Viet Nam era), under Dr. Jim Leutze; Soviet Government, under professor Joel Schwartz; and The Age of Augustus, under the chairman of the classics department, professor George Houston. The latter course led to my father and me joining a group of Fulbright Scholars (Dad nicknamed us the “Halfbrights”) at the Villa Virgiliana near Pozzuoli, Italy, in the summer following graduation. There we participated in a two-week course in active archeological excavations ongoing near Pompeii, Herculaneum and Mount Vesuvius in southwestern Italy. Although far from my major interests in chemistry and medicine, those courses provided an important balance in my overall education. Of course, it’s always about the teacher, not simply the course material. Professor Houston and his wife have remained lifelong friends of our family.

Who was your most influential educator? Why?

My father was the most influential mentor in my formative years. He was an academic neurosurgeon, chairman of the neurosurgical training program and chief-of-staff for over 20 years at Wake Forest University-Baptist Medical Center in Winston Salem, NC. He was also the head of the Harvard Medical Alumni Association, and his friends included many of the leading minds in the global neurosurgical community, who would often visit in our home, sharing tales of their fascinating lives. He also had a natural and very deep sense of spirituality, or connectedness and purpose.

He was the model of integrity, honesty and goodwill towards others – humble, yet extraordinarily competent – and confident. Having honed his neurosurgical skills on the battlefields of the Pacific theater during World War II, he was a most capable neurosurgeon who took exceptional care of his patients, residents, staff and colleagues. His high sense of ethics and responsibility to others serves as a pole star by which I navigate my life.

What was the best out-of-classroom learning experience you’ve had?

Over seven years of neurosurgical residency and cerebrovascular fellowship – given the exceptional quality and dedication of my mentors, both attending staff and fellow residents at Duke [1980-83, 1985-87], Harvard [1983-85], and Newcastle General Hospital in northern England [1987], where I performed my cerebrovascular fellowship – I learned enough outside the classroom to energize a very satisfying career. Given the fact we were working about 120 hours weekly during much of that residency (3x the average 40-hour week and well before the federal government’s mandate limiting such training to 80 hours weekly), we used to joke that we benefitted from 21 years of training compressed into seven years. The joke was that, it had to be so long because our learning efficiency was diminished by the chronic sleep-deprivation inherent in such an outrageous work schedule. We might quote Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who famously said, “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

In reality, we learned a tremendous amount over those tough years. Such surgical residencies are the result of a long-developed, tried-and-true form of safely and methodically ushering the resident from the most straightforward procedures and medical care through stages to their final training in performing some of the most challenging operations and making the type of complex decisions that they will face out in the world. The system thus provides top-notch training without sacrificing patient safety. As I faced increasing challenges in the management of complex patients and diseases, I faced them comfortably and enthusiastically, given the confidence and competence that flowed from my intense program of education over decades.

What would you want people looking to get into your field to learn that you did not have the chance to? Why?

I cannot identify any recommended subject that I didn’t have the chance to learn. Education is about “learning how to learn,” driven by a passion for the sheer “love of learning.” Crucial is to establish lifelong patterns of study that facilitate an active mind coming to a richer understanding of its world. Thus the broad liberal arts education so valued by my father is what I recommend for others. Learn as much as you can about everything, including a rich exposure to mathematics, the sciences (both physical and social), arts and humanities. One of the greatest travesties of our world is the tendency towards super-specialization, in which we have many experts on specific and diverse topics, but very few who seem to get “the big picture.” Premature focus on your anticipated field of career interest might short-change you on knowledge you didn’t know you needed to know. Gandhi said it best:

“Learn as if to live forever; live as if to die tomorrow.”

— Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

 

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