Brain Gain

How a world-renowned neurosurgeon is making medical history in Milwaukee.

Bradley Page was talking on the phone to his wife, just as he’d done so many times before. Only this time, he was calling from an operating table at the Aurora Neuroscience Innovation Institute (ANII) of Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center. And he still had a hole in his head.

Mere minutes before, doctors had finished removing a cancerous tumor from the 54-year-old’s brain. Page was even awake during the entire six-hour procedure on his right frontal lobe, part of the reason he could call his wife before surgeons closed.

This is the leading edge of modern brain surgery, and Page’s lead neurosurgeon, Dr. Amin Kassam, is at the vanguard. He directed the Feb. 19 operation while walking Page through the entire procedure. Page watched it all play out on a 52-inch TV.

“It was like being on an adventure ride at Universal Studios,” says Page, who lives in Germantown and is senior vice president and general counsel for a real estate investment trust. “Country music was playing, and there was a lot of joking.”

In fact, it was essential that Page be fully conscious and conversational during the procedure to make sure his surgeons were not getting too close to areas that control cognitive functioning and motor skills.

It’s all part of the Six Pillars Approach, a minimally invasive brain surgery pioneered by Kassam. It grants access to deep-lying tumors and brain anomalies that are difficult or impossible to affect through typical methods. The approach is made possible by to-the-millimeter navigation technology and high-def optics showing the precise location of brain fibers and cancerous tissue.

“We use optics to see and separate the bad tissue from the good without injuring the surrounding tissue,” says Kassam, who received his medical degree from the University of Toronto and is vice president of ANII. “And the bad tissue is precious – it holds the understanding of why cancer forms.” After each surgery, Kassam and his team, with permission from the patients, use the cancerous tissue for research purposes.

“The goal is to re-engineer brain cancer cells to make bad cells behave like good, healthy cells,” says Kassam, who has deeply personal reasons for being a neurosurgeon. When he was 11, his mother developed a brain tumor that left her in a vegetative state until her death 13 years later. “That is strong motivation for the work I do,” he says.

Kassam’s Aurora arrival in late 2013 has earned ANII plenty of attention, be it through Mark Johnson’s lengthy Milwaukee Journal Sentinel eyewitness feature on one of Kassam’s surgeries, or Kassam’s work teaching his procedures to surgeons around the world. He’d already built his groundbreaking reputation during stops at Ottawa Hospital Civic Campus in Ontario, Canada, and before that at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

But Kassam deflects much of the attention to the ANII team. It includes four neurosurgeons, four neurologists, a neuro-radiologist, an epileptologist, a neuro-oncologist, eight advanced practice providers and 15 support staff members. One of the newest arrivals is Dr. Richard Rovin, a neurosurgeon and director of clinical research for ANII, whom Kassam recruited from Marquette General Hospital in Marquette, Mich. “We treat each patient as if they’re the only patient we’re taking care of,” Rovin says. “This is not an assembly line.”

That approach isn’t lost on patients. “Two days after meeting with Dr. Kassam, I met with the whole team and we went over my MRI in detail,” Page says. “The multidisciplinary approach was very reassuring.”

And such conversations are two-way streets, particularly after the surgeries. “We listen to our patients,” Kassam says, “and try to learn from them so that each surgery is better than the one before.”

But it’s hard to imagine improving on Page’s. After an initial postsurgical headache, he soon discontinued pain meds and went home the next day. He was working the next week. And though he needed subsequent radiation treatments (to ensure no cancerous cells remained) and chemotherapy (to break the cycle of mutating cells), he expects to live at least another 20 years.

“The members of that team,” Page says, “are angels on earth.”

‘Brain Gain’ appears in the May, 2015, issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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