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Brain surgeon strives to make the impossible possible

Nov. 14, 2013

Since joining the IU School of Medicine in 2006, Aaron Cohen-Gadol, M.D., associate professor of neurosurgery, hasn’t labeled much impossible.

Aaron Cohen-Gadol

Aaron Cohen-Gadol directs a colleague during a brain tumor removal at IU Health Methodist Hospital. | Photo By Erik Markov

Internationally recognized for his work in brain surgery, Dr. Cohen-Gadol's surgeries and success stories have been featured on CNN’s "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer," CBS’ "The Doctors" and many others. Whether it's performing operations on children with extreme forms of epilepsy or removing tumors through the nasal passage, Dr. Cohen-Gadol works tirelessly to heal what is arguably the most delicate part of the human body: the brain.

“I have always treated my job as an art and passion, and that’s why I love coming to work every day,” said Dr. Cohen-Gadol, who primarily practices at IU Health Methodist Hospital. “If you really enjoy what you do, then you really want to put everything you have into it and you will always want to excel in every possible way -- but it has to be a passion.”

In addition to a desire to heal, Dr. Cohen-Gadol said he feels driven to perfect new and unusual brain surgeries to ensure the least possible harm and the greatest possible benefits to patients. To achieve this goal, he uses a wide range of methods to refine and improve the effectiveness of known surgical techniques.

Recently, he has begun performing tumor removals through the nasal passage, which is far less invasive compared to more traditional brain surgeries. He has also begun to experiment with using a special compound called fluorescein that causes tumors to glow, allowing a surgeon to more accurately remove a tumor without cutting into healthy tissue. These new technologies and methods hold the potential to reduce patient recovery times tenfold, as well as greatly improve post-surgical quality of life.

Aaron Cohen-Gadol

Dr. Cohen-Gadol pauses to contemplate during surgery. | Photo By Erik Markov

Dr. Cohen-Gadol’s conviction that such new techniques and therapies must be made available to the wider population also fuels his involvement in the Hemispherectomy Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides emotional, financial and educational support to individuals and their families who have undergone, or will undergo, a hemispherectomy or similar brain surgery. The ultimate goal is to provide patients -- every patient -- with better health outcomes and quality of life, along with faster recoveries.

Although this work speaks for itself, Dr. Cohen-Gadol’s passion for his patients also is reflected in the many messages from patients posted on videos of his procedures, all of which he uploads to a personal YouTube page. There are comments such as “Dr. Cohen is a gift from God” and “Dr. Aaron, you are amazing! Thank you.” He also maintains an active social media presence on Twitter.

“I videotape and record every surgery that I preform -- for education purposes more than anything,” Dr. Cohen-Gadol said. “I love using photos and videos to educate others, especially students, about what we are trying to do, which is making surgery more effective, decreasing patient recovery time and increasing the quality of life for our patients.”

In addition to posting videos and participating in residency education, Dr. Cohen-Gadol’s commitment to inspiring the next generation includes participation in the Student Research Program in Academic Medicine at the IU School of Medicine, a program that provides medical students as young as their first or second year to stand alongside him in the operating room.

Aaron Cohen-Gadol

Dr. Cohen-Gadol uses a microscope to perform a delicate proceedure during brain surgery. | Photo By Erik Markov

“Mentors played a huge role in my development, and I am glad to have had those individuals in my life helping, supporting and inspiring me to become a surgeon,” said Dr. Cohen-Gadol, who earned his medical degree from the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine and performed a neurological surgery residency at the Mayo Clinic. “I hope to be just that to some of the students who decide to shadow me and pursue neurosurgery.”

Looking to the future, Dr. Cohen-Gadol aims to continue bringing new forms of brain surgery to Indiana, and inspiring others to do to the same, combating what he sees as a lack of funding support for innovation by illustrating the real-life success stories of his patients.

“What was once impossible,” he said, “I want to make possible.”

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