What’s on your brain?
Michael Lawton, MD
Barrow President and CEO
Barrow Neurological Institute’s President and CEO, Dr. Michael Lawton, is considered one of the world’s best neurosurgeons and an expert in treating skull base tumors and cerebrovascular disorders such as aneurysms, arteriovenous malformations and stroke. But in college he was on a different path and almost didn’t become a doctor at all. Find out what’s on his brain: what led him to change courses, why he came back to Barrow, and what inspires him, both inside and outside of the operating room.
Welcome back to Barrow! Why did you make the decision to return after almost 20 years?
Thanks! I came back because I believe in Barrow. This place made me who I am as a neurosurgeon. Dr. [Robert] Spetzler, specifically, molded me. I wanted to continue the Barrow tradition of excellence and carry on the legacy that I know well from my training at Barrow. I firmly believe that this is one of the most unique places to practice neurosurgery in the world. Things can happen here that can’t happen anywhere else, which makes it a very exciting place to build a vision.
You completed your residency here under Dr. Spetzler. What’s your favorite memory from that time?
When Dr. Spetzler was the honored guest of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons in 1994, I was a midlevel resident and he asked me to prepare
his talks for the meeting. I reviewed all of his giant aneurysm cases, which included many of his cardiac standstill cases, and all of his transfacial operations – his most spectacular skull base tumor cases. The work was tough – I can remember pulling all-nighters in the operating room with our artist Mark Schornak simulating the approaches on models of the skull to make 3D videos, long before there were computer programs to produce the animations. But when it was all done and Dr. Spetzler delivered his amazing lectures at the meeting, I felt like Barrow had truly become the epicenter of neurosurgery and I was so fortunate to be right there.
What inspired you to become a doctor?
I was originally a biomedical engineering major in college, so I was interested in science, but I was missing the human connection. I couldn’t see myself working in the bowels of a hospital repairing equipment and decided to get over to the medical side. The other big driver was my grandfather, who was the son of immigrants and the first doctor in my family. He was a real hero for me, because I saw how his clinical research on the use of penicillin to treat meningitis helped so many people. He inspired me, my uncle and my cousin to go into medicine.
I was actually interested in heart surgery when I was in college, when the Jarvik-7 total artificial heart was first implanted. I wanted to use my engineering background to build artificial hearts, because I thought that was the coolest thing in medicine at the time. However, after my first year of medical school, I tried to get a research position in a cardiac surgery lab, and there weren’tany openings. I ended up finding work with neurosurgeons and really liked it, and the rest is history!
What has been your biggest challenge?
Becoming the best neurosurgeon I can be. I have been focused on this for so many years and pushed myself to become better and better. It’s one of those endless mountains to climb. Just when I think I’m getting pretty good, some difficult case or complication will bring me down and remind me that I cannot get complacent. I’ve had other challenges – raising four kids and losing a sister to brain cancer come to mind – but I seek new challenges because they define us.
What else defines you? What do you like to do outside of the operating room?
I love to ski – both alpine and Nordic, run mountain trails, ride my mountain bike and spend time with my family.
What’s your favorite place you have traveled?
After I matched here for my residency, I had two months to just travel. A college friend and I went to New Zealand, Australia, Bali, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong. We spent two months on the road, exploring a totally different part of the world, having fun, relaxing, and getting mentally prepared for the hardships of residency. I cannot remember another time when I felt so free and at peace. I began my neurosurgery career after that trip, and ever since, I have not been able to escape the weight of it.
What inspires you?
We’re all on this earth for only so long, and we have only so much energy to spend. I am inspired to make a mark on the world – whether that be working on a new surgical procedure that hasn’t been done before, writing a book, or teaching residents who will one day become my legacy. I’m inspired by and dedicated to making as big of a mark as I can so that when I leave this world, it will be just a little better for my having been here.
What’s one thing you wish people knew about Barrow?
I wish that people on the outside could experience the culture that is Barrow. People may read our publications or watch our videos, but they cannot know the complex environment that mixes talented neurosurgeons, hardworking residents, challenging cases, commitment to excellence, boundless creativity, and a strong tradition of being the best, both in the operating room and on other fields of competition. This mixture creates a bonded family and special culture that, for whatever reason, doesn’t exist at most other places.
Michael Lawton, MD, is the president and CEO of Barrow Neurological Institute and the Chair of the Department of Neurosurgery. He has treated more than 4,000 brain aneurysms, 800 AVMs, and 1,000 cavernous malformations. Dr. Lawton received a degree in biomedical engineering from Brown University and his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He completed his neurosurgery residency at Barrow, where he also completed a fellowship in cerebrovascular and skull base surgery. After joining the faculty at the University of California, San Francisco, he later completed a fellowship in endovascular surgery there. He has published over 450 peer-reviewed articles, three single-author textbooks and over 70 book chapters.