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Toby's Take: This Is Brain Surgery

Dr. Camarata in Cambridge Tower A IMRI surgical suite

March 29, 2023

When I worked for the Kansas City Royals, who start a new season this week, we used to say to each other when things got hairy, “Guys, it’s just baseball. This isn’t brain surgery.”

I wonder if Paul Camarata, MD, ever says to his colleagues, “Listen, it’s just brain surgery. This isn’t, like, baseball or something.”

All deference to how hard it is to hit a 95-mile-per-hour fastball, Dr. Camarata – a 2-time veteran of the Royals Fantasy Camp – probably has the harder job.

Born to work in medicine

He grew up in Hays, Kansas, and put some real hours in as, of all things, a radio DJ and television news and sports anchor for a local station. He had a big-time chance to pursue broadcasting with the promise of a scholarship to a prestigious journalism school. Years later, he still looks the part: impeccably dressed, with silver hair and a personality to match. But it was always going to be medicine.

“My mom tells me my dad always wanted me to be a neurosurgeon,” he says. “I don't remember that. My dad died when I was 14. He was an oral surgeon and a dentist, and my uncle was a cardiothoracic surgeon. I had a cousin who is an infectious disease doctor and another cousin who's a vascular surgeon. My mother was a nurse. So, I mean, medicine was really all around me. I guess that was the one thing I just couldn't leave alone.

“You know, where could I do the most good?”

The countless patients who are alive today because of Dr. Camarata know he made the right choice.

“There’s no doubt that Dr. Camarata is an all-star, championing not only his patients, but also his colleagues,” says Sarah Hon, MD, the health system’s vice president of neurosciences who succeeded the renowned Marilyn Rymer, MD, last year. “I’ve had the privilege of being one of those colleagues for over 25 years and can’t think of anyone I’d rather have on my team."

Camarata attended Stanford in California (including a semester in Italy studying … Italian) and came back to the University of Kansas School of Medicine to become a physician at The University of Kansas Health System. If he had a trading card, it would list teaching and clinical assignments at the Mayo Clinic, University of Minnesota, Harvard and The National Institutes of Health.

We would take people for a spinal case and admit them to the hospital several days before their surgery and then keep them there several days afterwards. Now, people come in at 6 a.m. the day they're having surgery and go home before nightfall. And even brain surgery patients are leaving the hospital sometimes the next day after removal of a brain tumor.

Paul Camarata, MD

An all-star of neurosurgery

At our place, Dr. Camarata and 12 other neurosurgeons jump into action when something in the nervous system requires surgery: the brain and skull, spinal cord and spine, peripheral nerves and blood vessels that supply the brain and spinal cord.

He explains most treatments in the world of neuroscience, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, don’t involve surgery. And this is fascinating. He says the more things advance, the less he’ll be “cutting patients open.”

“Everything's kind of moving toward minimally invasive technologies,” he says. “We are doing craniotomies, which are openings into the brain with smaller incisions, smaller openings. And especially spinal neurosurgery. Where before, you would open the spine a couple of inches to treat a disk. Now it's done through a very small incision in the back.

“And with that, shorter hospital stays. I mean, we would take people for a spinal case and admit them to the hospital several days before their surgery and then keep them there several days afterwards. Now, people come in at 6 a.m. the day they're having surgery and go home before nightfall. And even brain surgery patients are leaving the hospital sometimes the next day after removal of a brain tumor.”

Other advances have made it possible for surgeons like Dr. Camarata to locate lesions on the brain through robotics with a kind of GPS system.

“For something we would have never operated on 25 years ago because we couldn't find it,” he says, “now we have literally millimeter accuracy, pinpoint accuracy, so if we need to biopsy a lesion deep in the brain or find a lesion deep in the brain, we have these really amazing tools at our disposal.”

Already in use, he says, is technology that allows surgeons to find a spot in the brain causing tremors and heat up the tissue with ultrasound to stop the tremor. This has led to moments where surgeons can stop a tremor while the patient is awake and then pull the ultrasound away to show the tremor instantly returning. Then they can fix it permanently.

“Holy cow!” as a famous broadcaster used to exclaim.

An ace on our team

Had he pursued a career broadcasting, no doubt Dr. Camarata would have been a hit. A 2-time veteran of the Royals Fantasy Camp, he might have been a decent ballplayer. As a surgeon, plenty of people at The University of Kansas Health System think he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

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