Spine Surgery Pioneer Dr. Volker Sonntag to Be Honored at Namesake Symposium

Volker K.H. Sonntag, MD, an emeritus professor of neurosurgery at Barrow Neurological Institute, will soon be honored at a special symposium bearing his name.

The Sonntag Symposium on April 28 will precede the American Association of Neurological Surgeons’ Annual Scientific Meeting. The AANS conference is one of the largest and most prestigious in neurosurgery, drawing more than 3,300 neurosurgeons and medical professionals each year.

The course will feature presentations from international experts in both neurosurgery and orthopedic surgery. Senior experts will share pearls of wisdom in areas such as mentorship, leadership, and complication management. Younger surgeons will discuss the latest advances in the field of spine surgery, including minimally invasive techniques, neuro-navigation, and robotics.

Dr. Volker Sonntag performing spine surgery in phoenix
Dr. Volker Sonntag operates at Barrow Neurological Institute in 2006.

Celebrating a Legacy

The event will also celebrate Dr. Sonntag’s contributions in spinal neurosurgery. Dr. Sonntag was a pioneer of spinal instrumentation, who used a vise he purchased at Sears to bend his own metal rods. Perhaps his most famous instrumentation case involved successfully reattaching a 10-year-old boy’s skull to his spine after the ligaments connecting them severed during a bicycle-truck accident in 1989.

Dr. Sonntag was also a crusader in the fight to include spine surgery in a neurosurgeon’s scope of practice. Initially, when it came to the spine, neurosurgeons were virtually limited to procedures that reduced pressure on the nerves. But Dr. Sonntag believed they should also be able to treat the bony structures encasing those nerves. Orthopedic surgeons didn’t agree, igniting a turf war between the two groups of surgeons.

But Dr. Sonntag’s adversaries became his allies when both orthopedic surgeons and neurosurgeons were accused of malpractice for using pedicle screws to support spinal fusions. The claims were ultimately unfounded, the lawsuits were dropped, and a blind review of Dr. Sonntag’s cases confirmed his success with instrumentation.

Many also know Dr. Sonntag for working alongside Robert F. Spetzler, MD, to grow Barrow Neurological Institute into a world-renowned destination for neurosurgical treatment, education, and research.

It’s not only his career accomplishments that inspire his colleagues, though. It’s also his humble demeanor, ability to maintain humor in a challenging field, and unwavering dedication to making time for his family.

“Dr. Sonntag’s legacies are many,” said Barrow President and CEO Michael T. Lawton, MD, who trained under Dr. Sonntag as a resident in the 1990s. “I like to think of him as the heart of Barrow. You could always hear him telling a joke or hear him belly-laughing in an operating room down the hallway. He really added that heart to Barrow that complemented so nicely with Dr. Spetzler as the soul of Barrow. Together, it was just an amazing dynamic.”

Dr. Volker Sonntag with patient Timothy Mathias and family
Dr. Sonntag with Timothy Mathias and the boy’s family after surgery. In addition to atlanto-occipital dislocation, the 10-year-old boy had a golf-ball-size blood clot pressing on his brain stem. He is believed to be the first person to survive such a combination of injuries.

A Serendipitous Meeting

As someone whose personal philosophy includes having humility, Dr. Sonntag remained true to form when asked what part of the symposium he’s most excited about.

“I’m looking forward to the agenda of the symposium,” he said. “It’s really impressive. It’s a who’s who in spine.”

He’s also eager to reconnect with his spine surgery colleagues, many of whom he hasn’t seen in person since before the COVID-19 pandemic—which also postponed and relocated the Sonntag Symposium twice.

But Dr. Sonntag sees the new symposium plans as serendipitous. This year marks the 20th anniversary of his recognition as honored guest of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons’ Annual Meeting—one of the highest distinctions a neurosurgeon can receive. That meeting in 2002 convened in Philadelphia, the same city where the Sonntag Symposium will take place.

Volker Sonntag, MD, poses in front of imaging
Dr. Sonntag is pictured in 2002—the year he was selected as honored guest of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons’ Annual Meeting.

Saluting a Mentor

The course will kick off with an introduction of Dr. Sonntag by Dr. Spetzler, followed by Dr. Sonntag’s presentation on mentorship.

“He is a huge mentor to every spine surgeon that I know,” said Juan Uribe, MD, chief of spinal disorders at Barrow and Sonntag Symposium speaker. “He has this perfect combination of being a really good surgeon, having a high output of research, and also being innovative. Every time I talk to him, I feel inspired. I always learn from him.”

Dr. Sonntag’s legacies are many. I like to think of him as the heart of Barrow.

Barrow President and CEO Michael T. Lawton, MD

Course director John J. Knightly, MD, a former fellow of Dr. Sonntag’s, will give the final presentation of the day, “Salute to Volker: A Monster Show.”

“When I would have a difficult case, I would always refer to it as a ‘Monster Show,’” Dr. Sonntag explained.

The lectures will make way for a dinner honoring Dr. Sonntag. He expects to receive some good-natured gibes, and his colleagues won’t be surprised to hear him cracking jokes.