A Beacon of Light During Dark Times: Interview with Dr. Paul Kaloostian aka Dr. Paul
By Carin Chea
Every Marvel and DC universe has their superhero, and the world of neuroscience is no exception.
Los Angeles-based neurosurgeon, Dr. Paul Kaloostian (or Dr. Paul as he is known) doesn't just treat symptoms; he understands, honors, and respects the totality of each and every patient.
In a way, Dr. Kaloostian (who has an impressive list of publications in his many fields of expertise) has mastered the Zen of healthcare by acknowledging that patients are not the sum of their ailments, but rather people worth knowing and healing.
It was a privilege to meet the doctor and author, whose various non-fiction books serve to educate the world on the life-and-death experiences of those who have passed through Dr. Kaloostian's doors.
You knew at a young age that you wanted to enter the medical field. How did you enter the field of neurosurgery?
I took a course at Brown University - An Introductory to Neuroscience course. The professor there opened my eyes to a new avenue of thinking I had never known about. It was the anatomy of the nervous system. He really influenced me in so many different ways.
I was always a procedure-oriented person; I loved using my hands and creating. I think my interests in neuroscience in conjunction with that motivated me.
There was a textbook I read called "Death Be Not Proud" by John Gunther. It was about a young kid and his father and the kid's struggle with a brain tumor known as a GBM [Glioblastoma]. It's the memoir of the struggles between the father and son as they go from one hospital to another, across the world, in search of treatment. The struggle, perseverance, dedication really captivated me early on.
That was in high school. All of that fascinated me. I wanted to get involved and make a difference in this world. One of my missions is to show people how wonderful the field of medicine is.
You have a very long and impressive list of publications like peer-reviewed scientific books. Tell us about your non-fiction book The Young Neurosurgeon: Lessons From My Patient.
I wrote a memoir, and this is a compilation of about 14 or 15 patients that I really had the privilege of taking care of in my training. I treat hundreds of thousands of patients and we don't tell their stories; it goes forgotten and no one knows what they go through. Even patients don't have the energy to tell their story.
One of my missions is to tell my patients' stories anonymously and let the world know that these are some courageous, brave people. I try to tell these stories as honestly as possible in terms of what really happened. I want people to know about their perseverance and dedication.
What I've learned are significant lessons of compassion, empathy, humility - the mentality that if these patients can survive a brain tumor that is devastating, we surely can do anything as well, anything that we put our minds to.
You also have several poetry books: From The Eyes of a Doctor and My Surgical Cases Told in Poems. What inspired you to write your poetry?
One book is titled "My Surgical Cases Told in Poems" and the other one is "From the Eyes of a Doctor." Through these medical poetry books, I was trying my best to convey to the world, and to my patients, what they're going through when I tell them things like: They need to have a frontal lobe tumor removed. The words I use are big words and are complicated and distracting. I wanted to make things simpler and put them into layman's terms.
I felt that with poetry, with the rhymes and the staggered paragraphs, that poetry was a good way to do simplify and communicate. A lot of my patients have read my books before surgery or a consultation, and they gave me great feedback. It helped them understand what was happening.
I found it a great way to put meaning, through words and rhyme, to what we physicians and surgeons do on a day-to-day basis.
What inspires you as a writer?
Without my patients, I wouldn't have this dedication to tell their story, to show how beautiful medicine is despite the hours, sacrifice, blood and stress.
I recall a young male, Hispanic, in his 30s who had a terrible tumor in the worst area possible. It was in the brain stem, which controls your breathing and heartbeat.
I remember sitting with him in the ICU prior to surgery and going through all the pitfalls and risks associated with taking that thing out. That's like going into war and there are mines all over and you don't know where they're at, and anywhere you take a step can cause injury. It's a tough place to take a tumor out of. Everything is so valuable in that area of the brain stem.
Nevertheless, he did well and was thankful afterwards that I had explained things to him multiple times. He really appreciated the fact that I was there for him as promised and he told me that this communication and empathy is what helped him heal.
And he's alive and well to this day?
What would you say the core messages behind your books are?
One of my main messages is trying to show that communication and empathy are so critical in the field of medicine, especially in neurosurgery where you're dealing with life and death matters.
Through my writing, I hope to change the way medicine is by improving communication between doctors and patients, and even doctors and other doctors.
I think we could increase our ability to heal and care for many great people in this world if we could improve communication.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue the health and medical field?
Understand what your duty is, and that duty is to your patient above all else. Period. There's nothing higher than that sacred trust. We have to do what we can to help or provide care for that particular patient. No matter what. There may be struggles, financial problems, etc., but you have to provide the best care.
I like to say that I take care of the biggest homeless population. I do a lot of trauma calls - gunshot victims, stabbings. I'm usually on call and I take care of them. You cannot get shifted away due to financial issues and other things not pertinent to patient care. Even though you will not get paid for treating that patient, you must find fulfillment in caring for another human in their greatest time of need.
Secondly, find a method of catharsis for yourself so that when you leave the hospital, you have a method of having your heart, brain, soul, and mind decompress. You cannot let things bottle up over years and years. For me, it's writing and some exercise, and that's it.
How would you describe your philosophy as a physician?
Do no harm.
Are there any upcoming projects you'd like our readers to know about?
I'm working on a set of short poems, just solely based on traumatic brain injuries. Patients with those present in so many different ways. Some throw feces on the wall because their frontal lobes are gone. Some have lost their memories and cannot even recognize their own family members anymore.
You can imagine the various problems people with traumatic brain injury present with and I want to share this with the world.
For more information, please visit www.PaulKaloostian.com.
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