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The Adventurous Life of a Neurosurgeon

Dr. Sean Grady Penn Medicine

When you sit down with Dr. Grady—whether you’re a patient, a colleague or a friend—one thing is obvious right away: you have his full attention.

That’s because M. Sean Grady, MD Charles Harrison Frazier Professor and Chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at Penn Medicine doesn’t do anything “half-way”. From performing life-saving brain surgery to hiking in Chile to training the next generation of neurosurgery’s best, Dr. Grady takes on each adventure with knowledge, passion, confidence, and a little bit of risk.

It’s all these traits that help shape him into the neurosurgeon he is today. 

"In order to help people, I take calculated risks," says Grady. "That is the inherent nature of neurosurgery. A surgeon needs the skill and certitude to remove a tumor deep in someone's brain, staying hyper-vigilant that something could go wrong at any time. There is no room for hubris or error."

Grady Finds His Grail

grady icon schoolGrady grew up in Palos Verdes, a classic California community southwest of Los Angeles with ocean vistas and botanical gardens. He received a BA in biology at the University of California, San Diego, then headed east to attend medical school at Georgetown University School of Medicine, in Washington, D.C.

While studying neuroscience at Georgetown, Grady learned about the complex and foreign landscape of the brain and nervous system, sparking his interest in neurosurgery.

For many people, if you’re lucky, there is a pivotal moment that helps steer your life’s direction. A moment that makes you realize your passion and drives you to pursue it. For Grady, that came in medical school when he witnessed the miracle of seeing a patient’s life change overnight.

The patient, a 16-year-old boy, had a spinal tumor that had rapidly paralyzed his legs. After surgery to remove it, the young man lifted his legs and dangled them over the side of the bed. His parents and the physicians in the room were blown away. “The surgeon took the tumor out and within 24 hours he told the patient and family that the patient would be able to walk again,” says Grady. "That really influenced me."

For Grady, that was the moment he knew he wanted to be a neurosurgeon.

After graduating from Georgetown, Grady spent six years in a neurosurgical residency mentored by the legendary John Jane Sr., MD, Professor of Neurosurgery, at University of Virginia School of Medicine. “This was someone I wanted to emulate,” says Grady. Dr. Jane had built a program known for clinical and research excellence in a family-like environment Grady had not found anywhere else.

Once residency was completed in 1987, Grady was recruited by the University of Washington. Ultimately becoming a professor and the vice chair of the Department of Neurosurgery, Grady spent a number of years at the University of Washington before coming to Penn.

Grady spent a number of years at the University of Washington before coming to Penn.

Penn Calls for Grady

grady icon knowledge When Grady arrived at Penn in 1999 as the department chairman, the worlds of business and medicine were colliding: Physician leaders were expected to serve as department CEOs as well as superb clinicians and brilliant scientists. In response to this, Grady and the other clinical chairs attended the Wharton School. To help sharpen his leadership skills, Grady, of his own volition, took an intensive, week long course at University of Notre Dame to gain knowledge about how to build a truly vibrant department.

Over the next decade, Grady brought in some of the brightest physicians on the planet – many entrepreneurial in their own right – to fulfill the mission of the department and university. “We now have a phenomenal dynamic in neurosurgery: Our clinical care and research is multidisciplinary and innovative. We help more patients than ever before—attracting people from around the world—improving the quality of their lives, and in many cases saving them,” Grady explains.

One of Grady’s clinical specialties is skull base surgery. The skull base, also known as the cranial base, is a small, highly complex area at the bottom of the skull through which every nerve that connects the brain with the body moves.

Reaching these tumors, located in the recessed area behind the eyes, nose, and in the area that slopes to the back of the head, requires enormous skill; these are some of the most complex and technically demanding tumors to treat. This, along with other specialties in Neurosurgery, requires Grady to build a team of people with as much commitment as he has who are skilled in using the latest microsurgical techniques. A team that goes full force, 24 hours a day, 365-days-a-year.

But, when downtime finally arrives, Grady takes his fun as seriously as he takes his work.

Off the Grid

grady icon activeGrady’s recent "bucket list" backpacking trip through Los Glaciares National Park in Patagonia is one example of the adventure he seeks. Along with son, his son’s roommate, and son-in-law, he headed to Patagonia, the southern-most location in the hemisphere, known as the ‘bottom of the world.’

Team Grady hiked the more challenging and remote trails in magnificent Los Glaciares National Park.

Grady says, “Nobody was there except us. We hiked across glaciers and rappelled over 60-foot chasms lined with jagged rock and ice. If we got into trouble, no helicopter was coming.”

Now he’s gearing up to check off another bucket list trip — climbing Mount Kilimanjaro — a 19,000-plus foot dormant volcano. It is the highest peak in Africa and, despite guide services and well described routes, it still claims a few of the climbers who dare to scale it.

“Sometimes, despite planning and preparation, the best plans go awry,” says Grady.

Lost and Found

grady icon hobbiesIn the summer of 2016, Grady and one of his sons hiked in his "home turf" of the Sierra Mountains. Grady says, “I have a lot experience in this region, and on this particular trip we were going off designated trails into the backcountry. Despite meticulous planning and the right equipment, we got lost for three days.” The men regained their bearings by following a stream bed down to a river, knowing that a main trial was close to that location. Keeping a cool head and making prudent decisions based on knowledge and informed intuition led Grady and his son to safety.

The same “getting lost” can happen during an image-guided surgery on the brain. Before surgery, an MRI is taken to provide a map of the brain, showing precisely where a tumor is located. Yet sometimes during surgery, the position of the patient’s brain can shift ever so slightly, making the visual information on the MRI invalid. At this point, Grady proceeds with extreme caution, using vast experience and knowledge, and a finely developed sense of sight and touch to distinguish healthy tissue from the tumor.

He says, “One wrong move and the patient can lose their vision, hearing or become paralyzed.”

His zest for life must be contagious, because no one in Grady’s family does anything halfway. He and wife Debbie have six children.

Recently Debbie and their son-in-law, John, renovated and opened 2nd Story Brewing Co. in Old City, Philadelphia, a brewpub featuring craft beer. Grady has also become an avid beekeeper, fascinated with the biology and behavior of this “unique miniature universe” where one queen bee rules a hive of 30,000 worker bees and drones. Another reward from this hobby is the harvest of delicious, raw honey.

A Promise to His Patients

grady icon becoming doctor It might sound like Grady has "slain all the dragons." So what’s next?

“Professionally, I’ve achieved everything I ever could have imagined. My hope is to perform surgery until I am 70 and plan for the future of this great department.” Grady turns 62 this year.

“Practicing neurosurgery for more than 30 years has changed me in ways I could not have imagined. There is an enormous day-and-night commitment to my patients that can obliterate family life and social life. I did not know that going in,” explains Grady.

“A few months ago, I was late to my granddaughter’s first birthday party because a patient on whom I had operated had developed a post-surgical complication. The patient came first and I went back to the hospital.” He puts his patients first because Grady knows that when someone is in his office to see him, they are anxious.

“I listen, answer questions and pay attention to how they’re feeling,” says Grady. “Ultimately, I try my best to put them at ease.”

He instills this same philosophy to his department and likens leadership of the department to glacier climbing. “The leader and the team are roped together, 30 feet apart on the ice.

The team depends on the lead climber to map the safest route, and the leader depends on the team to have his back. Everyone must work in synchronicity and execute their roles within that framework.”

Grady concedes that physicians understand a fraction of how the brain works and what memories are made of. What he knows, unequivocally, is that through rigorous training, education and experience, he can save someone’s life, mobility or speech by operating on this mysterious three-pound, jelly-like organ. Grady says, “It is completely addictive.”

When you sit down with Grady, you’ll get his full attention. But if you’re a patient, he wants this to be your only sit-down.

“My hope for all my patients? That after surgery, they recover and live satisfying and productive lives—and that they never have to see me again.”

Interested in learning more about Dr. Grady, read The Importance of a Second Opinion 

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