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Charting a New Course

Noted neurosurgeon steps down

By Carole Bartoo
January 2010

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George Allen, M.D., Ph.D., would have made a great ship’s captain. An avid collector and reader of historic maps, he is well recognized for the way he steered the Department of Neurological Surgery for 25 years. Equally impressive is the care and concern he gave to selecting his crew.

“The question was always what was best for the department,” said Allen, the William F. Meacham Professor and Chair of Neurological Surgery. “Our culture is the bedrock of this department, which is also true for Vanderbilt University. We consider our department, including the support staff, to be an extended family.”

Allen stepped down as chair on Jan. 1, although he will remain a member of the senior faculty and will serve on the School of Medicine admissions committee. Reid Thompson, M.D., his first mate and protégé, is the new chair of the department.

Allen invited Thompson, a cerebrovascular surgeon, to come to Vanderbilt in 2002.

“It’s quite unusual for someone in an academic setting and in a surgical department to really pour himself into mentoring like he has done with me,” Thompson said. “It will be a privilege to follow Dr. Allen in leading this department.”

In a quarter-century of work, Allen has instilled in the department his own values: truth, collegiality and democracy.

“As far as chairmen of neurosurgical departments, he is quite unusual,” said Oran Aaronson, M.D., assistant professor of Neurological Surgery and associate director of the department’s residency program. “When I was interviewing for a residency slot, Dr. Allen was the only program chair who said he would schedule an interview at my convenience. No one else did that. And he called me himself. It meant a lot to me.”

A number of faculty, including Aaronson, say Allen’s culture of collegiality is the reason they have stayed with the department. While many medical departments run strictly from the top down, Allen always believed in involving his crew.

“About four years ago a national rule greatly reduced residents’ hours,” recalled Peter Konrad, M.D., associate professor of Neurological Surgery and Biomedical Engineering. “Dr. Allen sat everyone down and talked about the difficulties ahead. The rule was something that we saw at the time as adverse, but by the end of the meeting he had rallied the whole group around embracing the rule and making it work. That’s a true leader.”

“He always involved me in every interview with residents and potential attendings. He’d talk with me about which residents would work best with which nurses,” said Cindy Brown, R.N., who managed Allen’s operating rooms and worked in Neurosurgery with Allen for 23 years. “I had a waiting list for nurses trying to get into Neurosurgery, because of the camaraderie.”

Allen believed that the serious business of Neurosurgery required that he select and prepare his physicians to weather a rigorous workload. To do that, they had to be free of unnecessary stress and be supportive of one another. So, he planned annual picnics, weekend boat trips, and a softball league. At the base of the department’s social functions was Allen’s requirement that the team get to know and trust one another.

Allen built the department from a one-man operation in 1984 to 13 full-time faculty, 14 residents and four post-doctoral researchers. He oversaw the creation of five subspecialty programs. He graduated 45 residents during his tenure.

“I asked myself if my daughter Katie (now a first-year student at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine) were to ever need a neurosurgeon, would I recommend one of my residents to do it. If I wouldn’t let a resident take care of my daughter, I wouldn’t let him graduate,” Allen said.

In addition to spending untold hours in the operating room with some of the most difficult cases in the region, Allen was an active researcher. He oversaw the development of a drug Nimodipine, which reduces the risk of stroke after aneurysm surgery. It is still the standard of care today.

Allen’s love of cartography and map collecting inspired another of his great achievements – the first pre-surgical skull markers for surgical navigation.

“Different scans have different references making it very difficult to pinpoint landmarks. What we came up with was a lot like GPS for operating within the skull,” said Allen, who worked with bio-engineers and information technology experts to develop the markers.

Yet, even as he steered his department through an incredibly productive and successful era, Allen kept an eye on the future. With great patience and forethought, Allen charted what he hoped would be a course for the future of his department upon relinquishing the chairmanship.

“George Allen hired Reid Thompson with the idea of this leadership succession plan,” said R. Daniel Beauchamp, M.D., J.C. Foshee Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Section of Surgical Sciences. “Once Reid got here and started working, it was clear he would be such a leader and could take on the role, so that it will be a very smooth transition.”

Allen asked Thompson to become vice-chair of the department in 2004 and introduced him to Vanderbilt leaders. Thompson was making a name for himself as director of the Vanderbilt Brain Tumor Center at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, medical director of Inpatient Neurosurgery, and a participant in the development of a Clinical Neurosciences Institute at Vanderbilt.

By the time Allen was ready to announce he was stepping down, Thompson was the overwhelming favorite to succeed him.

“Dr. Allen’s legacy is the large number of outstanding neurosurgeons he has trained who now work all over the country and the world,” Beauchamp said.

Allen, who is married to Shannon L. Hersey, M.D., associate professor of Clinical Anesthesiology and Pediatrics, says he carefully plotted his own trajectory to slow when he felt ready for it. He turned 68 in January and is looking forward to visiting two daughters who are away at school, and to spending more time with Katie at Vanderbilt.

“I also love to cook, so I will be doing a lot more cooking for my wife and myself,” he said.

Like any good ship’s captain, he knows when it is time to steer toward calmer waters, but navigating the brain will always be of interest to him.
“I hope to start a research project understanding how the brain controls various ball games such as golf and basketball,” Allen said.


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