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Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon, Erick Westbroek, on serving others and also tapeworms

Erick Westbroek: Chief Neurosurgery Resident at Johns Hopkins

The first few times that Dr. Erick Westbroek opened up a patient’s skull, he was amazed.  “You’re staring at the brain,” he says. “That’s who a person is. Their memory, their personality, all their experiences.”  While this sense of wonder diminishes somewhat after years of operating on a near-daily basis, feelings of responsibility towards patients becomes more acute. Surgeons “understand the consequences of failure better than anyone else” in the operating room, according to Erick. “It takes a certain amount of hubris to take a knife to someone’s brain. I think people who lack that might not be able to deal with what happens when you fail.”

Erick is a chief neurosurgery resident, which he thinks of as one of the best positions in his field.  “Your job is to show up every day and do the biggest, baddest, hardest cases,” he says. Chief residents get to operate almost twice as much as the attending physicians who are training them.  Like most medical training, the hours can be grueling; residents are sometimes required to stay in the hospital for more than 25-30 hours at a time, often working more than 100 hours in a week.  

Finding His Focus

Erick’s sterling resume (a neurosurgery residency at Johns Hopkins, an M.D. from Stanford) belies his poor academic performance in high school, which he ascribes to poor effort and a lack of discipline.  But he began to take his schoolwork seriously after being enrolled in what he describes as “his dad’s own scared-straight program.” Erick had been working at his father’s tire shop the summer before his senior year of high school.  In the middle of a particular tough stretch of work on a sweltering day, his dad pulled him aside and asked if he was having a good time. “Do you want this to be your life?” Erick’s father asked him. “If not, how do we stop that from happening?”  Erick pursued a college education zealously, beginning to put effort into his classes and then getting a great score on the ACT. His hard work in his last year of high school paid off — he got a scholarship to attend the University of Utah.

It was at Utah that Erick was introduced to biomedical research in the lab of Brad Cairns.  The Cairns Lab was a unique place for an undergraduate to work. For one, it had a lot of resources.  Erick was also one of very few undergraduate researchers in the lab. He was responsible for a small project of his own which he presented on at lab meetings.  Finally, Dr. Cairns was a unique adviser; he was dedicated to developing whatever technique or research model was most appropriate for answering the questions he was interested in rather than applying one particular set of methods to different research topics.

Merging Passion and Talent

While Erick loved doing research, he began to realize that he had other passions — namely, assisting those in need.  He spent two years as a missionary in Sweden supporting recent immigrants, an experience that he found “satisfying on a deep emotional level.”  While he came back to his lab work as soon as he arrived in Utah, he knew that he wanted to take on a career in which he could directly help others.  “I missed that aspect of my life,” he says. “I realized that [helping people] was something that I needed in my life and that medicine would be the best way to express that.”

His first clinical experience — shadowing a neurosurgeon at Utah — was the result of a serendipitous conversation in an elevator. This chance encounter became a moment of clarity for Erick. It showed him that he wanted to be a neurosurgeon more than any other kind of doctor.  This isn’t exactly uncommon, he tells Nick. “If you ask most neurosurgeons what they would be if they couldn’t be neurosurgeons,” Erick says, “most of them wouldn’t say anything else in medicine. They’d be fighter pilots of something.”   

I realized that [helping people] was something that I needed in my life and that medicine would be the best way to express that.

Erick Westbroek

Erick’s Favorite Books

Once a Scientist is made possible by support from our listeners! Each week, we ask our interviewee to tell us about their favorite books. If any of these reads catch your eye, you can support the show by using the links below to buy a copy for yourself!

Notes for this episode were written by Sam Asinof.

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