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Dr. Robert Spetzler’s Last Chief Residents Reflect on Experiences at Barrow

During his 30-year tenure as president and CEO of Barrow Neurological Institute, Dr. Robert Spetzler has trained about 200 residents and fellows in neurosurgery. His retirement this summer coincides with the start of a new academic year and the graduation of his last class of chief residents.

Dr. Spetzler considers the Neurosurgery Residency Program at Barrow to be one of the greatest accomplishments of his career. When the program began, it accepted one new resident per year for five years of neurosurgical training. Today, the program accepts four new residents per year for seven years of training, with a total of 28 residents in the program at any given time. But Dr. Spetzler said what really makes Barrow’s residency program unique is the camaraderie.

When asked what he enjoyed the most about teaching residents and what he will miss the most, he said the eagerness, commitment, and intellect of his trainees.

The four residents in his last graduating class shared their thoughts on the past seven years and what it’s been like to train under the renowned neurosurgeon.

Karam Moon, MD

Dr. Karam Moon was born in Paris, France and grew up in Eastern Washington. He earned his medical degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

After graduation, Dr. Moon will join Arizona Neurosurgery and Spine Specialists, where he will specialize in cerebrovascular neurosurgery.

Why was Barrow your first choice for your residency program?

“When I came here to interview, I was really struck by the people and the culture. That was something that set it apart from every other program I interviewed at. The sense of family here and the collegial attitudes that everyone has, I think it all starts from the top with Dr. Spetzler and trickles down. He’s kind of set the right tone for the program, and it’s a really special place because of the people.”

What has it been like to train under Dr. Spetzler?

“It’s funny because you go through your early years of residency a little intimidated. There’s always a mystique around him, right? He’s such a big figure. But in your later years, especially your chief year when you’re working with him almost on a daily basis, you start to come to appreciate the subtleties that you never really noticed as a junior resident. For example, he’s a man of very few words, but every single thing he says is just so valuable. Those precious minutes that we spend with him, we really come to cherish. It’s something that I don’t think any of us will ever take for granted, especially considering this will be our last chance to work with him.”

Dr. Karam Moon at the Grand Canyon

Barrow Neurosurgery Residency Alums Mark Oppelander, MD and Karam Mood, MD with a fellow participant of the annual Grand Canyon rim-to-rim hike.

How does it feel to know you’re in his last graduating class?

“The honor of being his last chief residents is something I can’t really describe accurately in words. It’s just such an amazing feeling to show up every day realizing the opportunity we’ve been given. You find yourself pinching yourself because you know you’re sort of the last trainees of a man who’s changed neurosurgery forever.”

Do you have any particular memories of Dr. Spetzler that stand out?

“I think the ones I really remember are the ones outside of the hospital: for example, hiking the Grand Canyon with him from rim to rim. I have really fond memories of his Christmas party that he has every year because even though it’s a party for several hundred of his closest friends who fill out his house, he always sets aside time at the end of the night once everyone goes home to smoke cigars and drink some scotch with the residents. That’s been a tradition that we’ve all really enjoyed every year.”

What will you miss the most about your time as a resident?

“The people, for sure. Whether it’s other residents, faculty, nurses, or administrations, everyone is sort of here with the same mission. That’s what attracted me to this place at the beginning, and it’s definitely the aspect of my experience here that I’ll miss the most.”

Hasan Zaidi, MD

Dr. Hasan Zaidi came to the United States from Pakistan when he was 5 years old. He grew up in Los Angeles and then headed east to attend medical school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

This summer, he will return to the East Coast as faculty at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

Why was Barrow your first choice for you residency program?

“I first heard about Barrow when I was a second-year medical student. There were several times in medical school when people would say, ‘How do they do this at Barrow? What were the outcomes at Barrow?’ I knew this was the kind of place that I wanted to be at and train at because it really changed the way neurosurgery is practiced at a national level. The surgeons have the newest equipment, they are extremely well respected nationally, and the research coming out of here really impacts the field on a day-to-day basis. And then obviously the reputation of Dr. Spetzler is unparalleled. He’s really considered a father of modern neurosurgery. I was very fortunate to match here, and it’s been an incredible seven years.”

What has it been like to train under Dr. Spetzler?

How does it feel to know you’re in his last graduating class?“I think everybody who’s trained under him knows how great of a technical surgeon he is, but I think the aspect that some people don’t really get to see that I’ve learned to appreciate more about him is his personal side. He’s really an incredibly genuine person. He cares about his patients, he cares about his residents, and he takes time during his day to teach us. I remember operating with him at 3:00 in the morning as a chief resident. He could have easily just done the case himself and gone home early. I don’t think you’d find another chairman who’d be willing to sacrifice their time in that manner.”

How does it feel to know you’re in his last graduating class?

“You look at the people who have graduated from this program, and a lot of them have gone on to become chairmen of other neurosurgery programs and people who you see at national meetings. It’s really humbling to know you’re kind of in that category of trainees under him. It’s hard to realize that Dr. Spetzler won’t be there to save us when we’re in trouble. As residents, it’s always good to push ourselves and do as much as we can, but we always know that Dr. Spetzler is there if there are any issues. It’s just an incredible feeling to know that you’re his last resident class and finishing out his career and making him proud. I think that’s all our class wants to do.”

Do you have any particular memories of Dr. Spetzler that stand out?

“I think operating with him at 3:00 in the morning is one of the key memories. No matter what time of day, he doesn’t change his attitude toward people. As a resident, you come to a point where something is very technically difficult or very frustrating, and in the back of your mind you always think: what would Spetzler do? I’ve seen him on many occasions doing very difficult cases on very complex patients, and he’s above the fray and he’s so calm. He’s such an incredible person to emulate.”

What will you miss the most about your time as a resident?

“The people. I think it’s really the people that create this institution. It’s not just the papers and the technical nuances that have made Barrow famous; it’s really the people, the day-to-day interactions, and the courage of the surgeons to operate on cases that wouldn’t be done at other institutions. The environment of being around such collaborative, friendly, and supportive faculty and residents is something I will truly miss.”

Zaman Mirzadeh, MD, PhD

Dr. Zaman Mirzadeh grew up in Northern California and attended medical school at the University of California, San Francisco.

After graduation, Dr. Mirzadeh will continue his career at Barrow as an attending neurosurgeon. He is fellowship trained in functional neurosurgery.

Why was Barrow your first choice for your residency program?

“My first time ever seeing this place was when I came to interview, but the reason I applied was because you just hear that this place is like the promised land of neurosurgery.”

What has it been like to train under Dr. Spetzler?

“It’s been great. We only work with him during certain times of our residency, but he still obviously sets the tone for the whole place. I came from a program that was very work heavy. Dr. Spetzler has a much more balanced approach, and yet he’s still one of the best ever. What I really took away from his training paradigm is that you can have other priorities in life and still be very passionate about what you do and be good at it.”

Do you have any particular memories of Dr. Spetzler that stand out?

“The things that stand out to me have been his reactions to the times when I’ve messed up. Those were always very important moments when I really kind of saw a bit of his character. He was willing to help and was very understanding. He empathized because he’d been there.”

What will you miss the most about your time as a resident?

“The people, 100 percent.”

Rami Almefty, MD

Dr. Rami Almefty grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas and earned his medical degree from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

After graduation, he will spend another year at Barrow for a fellowship in endovascular neurosurgery.

Why was Barrow your first choice for your residency program?

“I did a subinternship here and had a great time. I learned a lot. I think the training the residents get here is second to none in terms of the cases they get and the environment they work in. Everybody gets along well, and it’s a happy place to work.”

What has it been like to train under Dr. Spetzler?

“It’s been great. He’s as good of a boss as anybody could ask for. He’s set the tone and created the environment. But also to work hand in hand with him and learn surgery from him, it’s really been a special experience.”

Dr. Robert Spetzler at his Christmas party with Barrow residents

(From left) Drs. Zaman Mirzadeh, Hasan Zaidi, Robert Spetzler, Karam Moon, and Rami Amlefty at a Barrow Christmas party.

How does it feel to know you’re in his last graduating class?

“I’m saddened that he’s retiring because I think he still does such great work and has so much to offer, but I’m happy for him obviously. I feel very fortunate to have been a chief resident of his before he retires.”

Do you have any particular memories of Dr. Spetzler that stand out?

“The cool thing is that we have a lot of memories of him not just in the hospital but outside of the hospital too, like at the Christmas parties at his house and the Barrow Olympics. Seeing him in his own environment, relaxed and having fun, and him welcoming us into that environment has always been really cool. I’ll always remember those times with him.”

What will you miss the most about your time as a resident?

“I think the people that I’ve met, especially my co-residents. Those will be lifelong friends.”

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Since our doors opened as a regional specialty center in 1962, we have grown into one of the premier destinations in the world for neurology and neurosurgery. Our experienced, highly skilled, and comprehensive team of neurological specialists can provide you with a complete spectrum of care–from diagnosis through outpatient neurorehabilitation–under one roof. Barrow Neurological Institute: Discover. Educate. Heal.