Dr. Richard Ellenbogen removes brain tumor from 11-year-old girl



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Posted on June 20, 2010 at 8:10 PM

Updated Monday, Jun 21 at 3:38 PM

There's just one thing on the mind of neurosurgeon Dr. Richard Ellenbogen right now - his patient, Jessica. She has a brain tumor --her second one -- that must be removed. It's a frightening day for the 11-year-old and her parents.

Dr. Ellenbogen, known for his expertise in brain surgery, also shows he has a heart. His bedside manner and passion for medicine earned him top honors as one of Seattle's top docs.

"I love what I do," he said.

Follow Dr. Ellenbogen through the halls of Seattle Children's Hospital and you'll see his popularity extends beyond parents and patients.

But, it's all kidding aside when faced with the latest MRI of Jessica's brain tumor.

"I hope it's straightforward, I pray it's straightforward," he said.

This is serious business. "It's the center of her being, yeah, yeah, we'll get it out, we'll get it out," he said.

Jessica's brain surgery is the first of three Dr. Ellenbogen will perform on this typically brutal day at Seattle Children's.

To get an idea of how stressful it can be for a neurosurgeon, think back to the day the pilot avoided a catastrophe and safely landed his plane full of passengers on the Hudson River.

"And I'm saying that was remarkable and he should be congratulated because no one's done that before, but we kind of do that every day at our job that there are times where there are terrible patient problems, people tragic accidents, people with absolute horrible diseases and we got to land that plane on the Hudson River every single day," said Dr. Ellenbogen.

Add to that, Dr. Ellenbogen's other responsibilities. He's also Chief of Neurological Surgery at Harborview, Chairman of Neurological Surgery at the University of Washington, and he's spearheading changes in major league football.

Juggling all these duties adds up to constant phone calls, long days and nights on the job and less time at home.

"And I've got family, three kids and a wife," he said. "And I think that's the hardest thing in my life, I mean what's the hardest thing for you, manage a family, manage a job, trying to manage and so trying to multitask and do it at a level that demands perfection. It demands perfection in everything we do."

"The one thing neurological surgery does is it trains you to work tirelessly," he said.

In other words, rarely does Dr. Ellenbogen get a break.

"I don't get a break, although if I have to go to the bathroom you can't follow me there," he said.

Mid-morning during a typical week at Seattle Children's several top docs begin life-changing operations. Outside O.R. 15 Dr. Ellenbogen waits for his patient to be prepped for a long and difficult brain operation.

He keeps the mood light by poking fun at a few colleagues and by sharing details of his most bizarre surgery ever.

"The baby gorilla couldn't, you know, swing from the trees and all that," he said.

Dr. Samuel Browd was there, too, three years ago when the Woodland Park Zoo needed help with a medical emergency.

"And so they went all over the world and found the guys, the experts on gorilla surgery and it happened to be us," said Dr. Ellenbogen.

The surgeons were asked to make a house call and remove a mass from the spine of a newborn gorilla. Operating in the zoo's animal health center was quite different than Seattle Children’s.

"Because the operating room is from here to there, you know they've got to operate on giraffes and elephants and things like that," said Dr. Ellenbogen.

Amanda, the baby's mother, had to be tranquilized so they could get the baby away from her. While she slept, veterinarians painted her fingernails red, figuring the 225-pound gorilla would need a distraction upon waking up.

"So the mother spent the next hour looking at her fingernails, not realizing the baby is gone. We operate on it and the mother was awake enough to check out her fingernails," said Dr. Ellenbogen.

The plan worked, the surgery was a success and the baby gorilla was returned to her mother's arms.

"I thought there would be maybe a gorilla surgeon out there, but I guess I'm it and the gorilla, you can go to the Woodland Park Zoo, it's now swinging from the trees," said Dr. Ellenbogen.


Now it's time for 11-year old Jessica to have brain surgery. Dr. Ellenbogen answers last minute questions and explains the seriousness of the operation to Jessica's mom and dad.

What he sees in a parents' eyes at this moment, right before their baby leaves for surgery, always sticks with him.

"You saw it, I have to face the families, and that's the big thing you've got to look into that mother's eyes," he said. "So you've got to remember to treat them like your kids, but you can't get close, that close that it effects your judgment and clouds what you're going to do because what we are going to do what  the team today is very complex surgery near the brainstem. And your job is to make that risk go to zero, and make the outcome go to one hundred percent."

A high-powered microscope allows Dr. Ellenbogen to journey deep into Jessica's brain. 

On his way to finding the tumor, he discovers an alarming amount of scar tissue left over from a previous surgery.

Every speck of the unexpected roadblock must be cleared away. From Dr. Ellenbogen's perspective, it's like picking up a grain of sand with a pair of tweezers.

The team continues to travel deeper and deeper into the darkest part of Jessica's brain until they finally find what they're looking for, the tumor.

"Wow, that is up there guys, holy moly," he said.

Now they face the challenge of taking it out.

The surgery lasts longer than expected, more than three hours.

"It went perfect. It was a really hard case, oh my God that was hard," he said.

Dr. Ellebogen will always spend as much time as needed in the O.R. but, once outside, he doesn't waste a minute moving on.

He's determined to help another family get through a tough time. Four-year-old Kenzie is next in line for surgery

When we leave Dr. Ellenbogen for the day, he's been on the job for nine hours. It's late afternoon, almost dinnertime. 

"We got a lot more to do, the party has just begun," he said.

Her tumor now gone, Jessica is doing very well.