Brain Surgery, Up Close

Watching a neurosurgeon at work is awe- and cringe-inducing.

I’m hardly the target audience for Simon & Schuster’s new Masters at Work series, a collection of slim books touted as “the best virtual internship you’ll ever have” in your quest for a vocation. Nor is a young medical student eyeing the arduous specialty of neurosurgery likely to be a prime candidate for this particular entry in the first batch of “narrative career guides.” Surely she’d be too busy steeling her nerves and honing her scalpel skills.

Simon & Schuster

Except who can resist a chance to spy on jobs they can’t really fathom? Watching the chairman of Mount Sinai’s neurosurgery department, Joshua Bederson, at work is a fascinating and informative—and awe- and cringe-inducing—experience. Peel back the scalp, drill through the skull, then probe and slice and suck away at tumors (“pebble-like growths,” mushy sheaths, or anything in between): The enterprise is so physical and so intricate, and so fraught. The tiniest slip in the mysterious labyrinth of the brain can spell disaster.

John Colapinto, a New Yorker staff writer, drills down and probes very deftly himself. He has found an ideal subject in Bederson, who isn’t merely a virtuoso in the OR but also flouts the callous-egomaniac stereotype of neurosurgeons. What a daunting model to live up to!

We eavesdrop on one of Bederson’s chief residents, soon to move on from Mount Sinai, as he does his last prep work for the master—parting a patient’s hair and applying gel before exposing the “pearly jelly” of the brain. “I’ll be opening a barbershop,” he jokes. “Doing similar stuff, just slightly less stressful.” Next up for me in the series: Kate Bolick’s Becoming a Hair Stylist.