Dr. Eltahawy, St. Mary Mercy Livonia, is among our doctors who serve as leaders, teachers and healers.
Tell us a little about yourself:
I grew up in Egypt with my family – my dad was a physician and my mom was a social worker. I have fond memories of childhood. One very important thing my dad instilled in us was a sense of roots. He was originally from a countryside province next to Cairo. Every weekend we would go visit family. There was no TV, sometimes no electricity. Sometimes, being kids, we would try to get out of going, but later in life, I saw those visits gave us a sense of family. This had an important purpose, because no matter where I’ve travelled, when I started my life in the U.S., I never experienced homesickness. It made me well-grounded.
What drew you to St. Mary Mercy Livonia?
I chose St. Mary Mercy Livonia because the culture here focuses on compassion and quality. I always felt the need to contribute in the same way that science is advancing. I had a good deal of training in Egypt, and it was good training, but all the advances were coming from the U.S. and a few other countries. I decided to move to the U.S. in order to get firsthand exposure and research how things are discovered…neurosurgery is still a frontier. It’s an exciting time for this field; we are going where no one has gone before, like space discovery and the explorers who set out before the geography of the earth had been mapped.
How did you choose to become a doctor? How did you choose your specialty?
Initially, I wanted to go into science. I was very keen on exploring and making big discoveries. In Egypt, however, our entrance exam into university is like a final exam. It’s different than in the U.S., where you look at all the aspects of learning and testing to determine if someone would make a good doctor or should go to medical school. If you score well that determines if you have the capacity to be a doctor, and your score becomes a driving force that you don’t want to waste. I did very well in exams. My dad sat with me and said, “Going into medicine will also give you the opportunity to pursue science.” My interest in discovery stayed with me. I spent six years chasing so much knowledge and participating in many experiments. Through education and training, I selected the specialty of neurosurgery. I felt neurosurgery combines my interest in new frontiers with the most direct contribution on patients’ wellbeing.
What is your philosophy of care?
My philosophy is to have a team and empower all members of the team. This is based on my own experience and those I learned from. It’s important to bring the patient in as part of the team. We are treating a condition that we are all fighting together. It’s important the patient is empowered and feels they will have a good outcome and safe recovery. We are dealing with complex medical situations, and as a surgeon, I cannot do it without a team. I feel blessed to work with a team of highly qualified individuals who fulfill their duties and roles as members of a team that cares for patients.
What is the role of philanthropy at the hospital and to make an impact on the health of our community?
Philanthropy is crucial. There are so many developments and programs that can have a tremendous impact on the community and care we provide that need resources – personnel, state-of-the-art medical equipment, research. Some examples would be doing more to serve people with seizures and epilepsy, cerebral palsy and other conditions that cause spasms. Also, elderly people facing problems with bones, we see a lot of compression fractures. I often wonder about ways to address the source and make homes safer and good diets easier and more affordable. I think philanthropy can help bridge those gaps.
What are two or three of the most important advancements in neurosurgery? What is on the horizon for this field of medicine?
Deep Brain Stimulation. Interaction between the nervous system and implantable devices is changing the course of disease. This science is in its infancy. We implant electrodes to reduce tremors or dystonia – think of it as like a pacemaker for the heart, but this is for the brain for motor skills. The device sends electric pulses to improve symptoms and has been very successful with people with Parkinson’s and other conditions that cause non-stop tremors. It improves quality of life for people with those conditions. Deep Brain Stimulation is being developed for many other areas too including memory loss and ALS where the brain is alert, but most of the body is not getting signals. Steven Hawking got some and was able to operate his voice through eyelid movement. For depression, for persons whose condition are drug resistant and nothing else is helping, we are finding we can create targeted interruptions in the vicious cycle and give a better quality of life – this is much better than ECT, which addresses the whole system. For people with epilepsy who may not be candidates for other procedures, there is a promising device that detects seizures and stops seizures, again it works like a pacemaker in the brain. We are also working toward spinal injury to bypass the injured part of the spine and address paralysis.
Measurement of Stroke. There are many options for prevention, especially healthy weight, active lifestyles and nutritious diet, but when a stroke happens, there is now increased awareness to intervene within a certain amount of time, originally thought to be within 3 hours, but newer studies are showing up to eight hours and beyond that. We use clot dissolving drugs and mechanical clot retrievers. Treatments for stroke save people from paralysis and speech issues.
Spine Surgery. Statistically 1/3 of people will have back problems at some time in their life. Again, prevention is key through healthy active lifestyles, good posture, avoiding repetitive injuries and practicing good job ergonomics. But when problems happen, the spine has many joints that are all connected and we have to watch how corrections will affect the rest of the body. We have to look at how we can minimize the effects a treatment will have on other parts of the body through a personalized approach factoring in things like age, health, lifestyle and the patient’s goals. We have had very promising advancements in neck and spine treatments including artificial disc replacements as another option beyond spinal fusion. We have improved safety and risks of complications. We are able to use navigation systems that ensure accuracy. Robotic spine surgery is the most recent advancement. The robot helps take the surgeon’s roadmap and mimics it by placing screws in a very safe way. Traditionally, the benefits of spine surgery are good, but there are risks. The roots of the bones where the screws go in have critical particles at high risk of breakage. We started robotic surgery a year ago, and since then have had zero breakage of critical particles. This is an example of why we must continue to explore and advance in the neurosciences.
Are you involved in other leadership roles beyond St. Mary Mercy Livonia?
I am the President of the Michigan Association of Neurological Surgeons. I’ve just transitioned into this leadership role, so I’m very excited and will remain for the next three years. It brings a lot of opportunities to serve society and the neurosurgery community in Michigan. My focus would be to help neurosurgeons achieve a good work-life balance. In 2019, I was invited to present at the Egyptian Society of Neurological Surgeons annual conference as a guest speaker on skull-based craniocervical junction disorder – abnormalities in the complex area where the brain transitions to the spine. I was invited to speak and teach in the lab about safe exposures and reducing risk and to provide scientific sessions on complex spinal surgeries. I cherish those international interactions, especially with colleagues and professors I studied with in Egypt, and to exchange knowledge I’ve been blessed to gain here in the U.S.
What is your favorite movie?
It’s not easy to pick a favorite movie. There is one I’ve liked that I had the chance to see again recently. It’s not very common, it’s an Italian science fiction movie called “Raiders of the Year 3000.” I like science fiction – I feel like you want to watch it again and again and every time you see something new – those are the kinds of movies that are really interesting. Set against this post-apocalyptic scene, you see how man can change, and you see hope.
To make a gift in support of St. Mary Mercy Livonia, please contact Jana McNair at 248-858-3556 or firstname.lastname@example.org.