Q&A: Dr. Jay Turner, Spine Surgeon

For Dr. Jay Turner, neurosurgery provides the perfect combination of science, technology, and human connection.

“Patients put their trust in me, at a time of total vulnerability, to apply my expertise to help them get better,” he said. “All of that is very rewarding. It’s this wonderful blend of intellectual and interpersonal satisfaction.”

Dr. Turner joined the neurosurgery faculty after completing his residency at Barrow Neurological Institute. He also completed fellowships in complex spine surgery in San Diego, California and Zurich, Switzerland.

For Neurosurgery Awareness Month, Dr. Turner shared what it’s like to work as a neurosurgeon, what drew him to the subspecialty of complex spine surgery, and his advice for aspiring neurosurgeons.

Why did you choose to specialize in complex spine surgery?

My passion for spine surgery really took shape in residency. Spinal conditions can have an enormous impact on patients and, because they are so common, have a big impact on society. Helping a patient restore function and get their life back after successful spine surgery was really what got me hooked—spine surgery can truly be transformative for patients. I then was drawn in to the more complex spinal problems—conditions that had more technically challenging solutions, such as spinal deformities and spinal tumors. Nothing was more gratifying to me than approaching a complex structural spine issue, achieving the desired surgical result—like correcting a severely deformed spine—and then seeing the patient get their life back on track. I was also attracted to the opportunity to push the field forward. Despite all of our technical advances, many of our approaches to complex spinal disorders remain fairly primitive. I am motivated to help refine the field and develop new innovative solutions.

What spinal conditions do you treat?

I treat the full spectrum of neurosurgical spinal disorders—from the occiput down to the sacrum. Conditions range from simple degenerative conditions to more complex spinal deformities, such as scoliosis and kyphosis. I also treat traumatic spinal conditions and patients with spinal tumors.

photo of dr. jay turner wearing a lab coat in a hospital hallway
Dr. Jay Turner
Barrow Neurosurgeon

How long can a spinal reconstruction take?

There is a wide range. Some are relatively quick and may take an hour or less, while others are much more involved. The most time-consuming operations that I perform are probably the minimally invasive approaches to complex spinal conditions. My goal with surgery is always to use the least invasive operation possible to effectively treat the patient’s problem. When using minimal access corridors for complex issues, this often requires multiple approaches to accomplish the surgical goals. The benefit is lower blood loss and faster recovery, but these types of surgery often require a lot of time to set up and execute. It’s not uncommon for these procedures to entail two or three stages over multiple days.

How are you able to stay on your feet and focused for long procedures?

That part is actually very easy. It’s no different than getting engulfed in any kind of captivating experience. Surgery is exciting, with defined steps and goals. There is a rhythm and pace that is engaging and gratifying. Time flies by quickly.

What is the most difficult part of being a neurosurgeon?

It’s very easy for work to bleed into every aspect of life. As a neurosurgeon, I am committed to my patients and to trying to advance our field. And there is always more work to be done. Trying to balance this professional ambition, while maintaining balance in my personal and family life, can be challenging at times. It can be tough to turn it off. But I am lucky to have a very understanding wife and family who recognize these challenges, and they help to keep me centered.

What advice do you have for people considering or pursuing a career in neurosurgery?

Nothing was more gratifying to me than approaching a complex structural spine issue, achieving the desired surgical result—like correcting a severely deformed spine—and then seeing the patient get their life back on track.

-Dr. Jay Turner

If neurosurgery lights a fire in you, don’t let anyone dissuade you. Neurosurgery—and medicine in general—requires an enormous commitment and that can be intimidating. But it’s hard for me to imagine a more rewarding career. My advice would be to be sure that you want it, because it certainly is demanding—but if you do, stay steadfast in your pursuit. It’s an incredible career.

What do you think it takes to be a good neurosurgeon?

There’s a long list of qualities that are important, but I think the number one quality is a strong work ethic. Also, the ability for honest self-reflection and to challenge yourself to get better.

How do you envision the future of neurosurgery?

The future of neurosurgery is going to be more data driven and technology focused. Despite all of the advances in neurosurgery over recent years, there is still large variability in quality and outcomes for many neurosurgical treatments, and that has to change. As we learn more about the most meaningful variables, we will be able to better predict outcomes and determine the optimal treatment plan. And more precise technology, such as robotics, will continue to evolve and help to better execute those treatment plans with less human error. I expect to see Barrow at the forefront of all of those advancements.

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