We congratulate Dr. John Wilson, Vice-Chair of Neurosurgery at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, as the Meritorious Member Award Winner at the 2019 Spine Summit.
I caught up with him after the meeting to hear more of his story.
Dr. Wilson grew up in the small town of Sharon, Pennsylvania, and attended the Penn State/Jefferson Medical College accelerated B.S./M.D. program, completing both undergraduate school and medical school in 5 years. He started in a General Surgery residency at Allegheny Hospital in Pennsylvania and early on recognized his true love for Neurosurgery. After three years of General Surgery residency, he started Neurosurgery residency at NYU at then transitioned to Tufts.
It was there that he met his major neurosurgical mentor, Dr. William Shucart. To this day, Dr. Wilson tries to emulate Dr. Shucart in his approach to teaching residents. He noted that Dr. Shucart recognized “residents need experience in the operating room to become technically skilled” as well as book learning and time in clinic for patient management. Dr. Wilson also respected Dr. Shucart’s “meticulous care of tissue” and attempts to maintain this meticulous care in his own cases wherever possible.
Upon graduation from residency, Dr. Wilson thought he would be a cerebrovascular neurosurgeon, but he was advised and recognized that there was a growing need for neurosurgeons to perform complex spine surgery. Dr. Shucart pointed him in the direction of Dr. Andreas Weidner at Paracelsus-Klinik in Osnabruck, Germany. Dr. Wilson spent 6 months with Dr. Weidner learning complex cervical spine surgery. Using these skills back in the States generated some of the biggest challenges he had while developing his early practice at Allegheny Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the time, “Neurosurgical spine was in its infancy, and there was a substantial amount of skepticism about neurosurgeons performing instrumentation.” He was restricted in what he was able to do, which made his early practice of spine surgery frustrating and challenging.
Luckily, he was able to find a strong operative partner in Dr. Charles Stillerman. The two performed all instrumentation together. Dr. Stillerman’s experience in complex thoracolumbar surgery provided Dr. Wilson an opportunity to hone his own spine surgical skills. This experience helped shaped his future practice and heightened Dr. Wilson’s commitment to train the future generations of neurosurgeons in complex spinal procedures.
After three years at Allegheny, he was notified of an opportunity to perform both cerebrovascular surgery and spine surgery at Wake Forest University. He was also offered the opportunity to teach. This offered the best of all worlds for Dr. Wilson, and he has practiced at Wake Forest ever since.
Now, Dr. Wilson’s greatest practice challenges lie in “the explosion of technology that has run ahead of our knowledge of who best to apply it.” He explained that advancements in technology have been made in spine surgery faster than we spine surgeons have been able to determine how to most effectively utilize them for our patients. Dr. Wilson hopes that with the advent of big data and more surgeons participating in registries, we spine surgeons can better prove what is most efficacious for our patients.
When it comes to advice for young spine surgeons, Dr. Wilson recommends, “Find an aspect of what we do that you love and build your identity and practice around it. We spend so many of our waking hours around our practices, you need to be passionate.”