Dr. Saadi Ghatan: The Surgeon Who Saved My Sister’s Life

(L to R) Owen Russell's mother, sister, and Dr. Ghatan about 15 years ago./Owen Russell

By Owen Russell

 

Dr. Saadi Ghatan is a preeminent voice in neurosurgery. He is the Chair of Neurosurgery at Mount Sinai West and Mount Sinai Morningside. He serves as Director for Mount Sinai’s pediatric neurosurgery program. He is a professor. He is an author. He has been featured on the Netflix show “Diagnosis.” He has received awards and acclaim from around the world. His picture used to hang on my family’s fridge; because in 2004, he saved my sister’s life.

   Grace Russell was born on Jun. 25, 2004. She was on all accounts a healthy baby. She was the youngest of three children born to Jim and Jeanette Russell. Aidan was nearly six, and I was only three. From the moment Grace entered the world, she made our family complete. Her parents now had a daughter, and her brothers had a sister. Like an image from some cheesy catalog, the Russells were a picture-perfect family.

   Nov. 14, 2004 was a typical Sunday. Grace had been fussy, but nothing totally unusual for a five-month-old baby. As my mom prepared to bathe both me and my brother, Grace became more irritable. Her color seemed off as well. Setting Grace down in her pack-and-play, my mom hoped she’d catch some sleep to hopefully lift her spirits and regain some color.

  Things only got worse. After sleeping for just a short while, Grace vomited. Her color faded even more and she became listless. Both my parents were worried–something was off. 

   At first they assumed it was nothing more than a stomach bug. So like any concerned parent would do, my dad called the pediatrician. Since it was a Sunday night, nobody was in the office but there was a doctor on call. The doctor listened as my parents described Grace’s symptoms, and after hearing everything suggested that someone take her to the emergency room, just as a precaution. The situation quickly became more uneasy.

   My family is from Pearl River, New York. A town of around 16,000 people, located just 30 miles north of Manhattan. While being close to New York City, the nearest hospital is Nyack Hospital, while only a small trauma level III hospital, was about 10 minutes away. That night my Dad walked in unaware of the whirlwind about to take off.

   Grace received a series of diagnostic tests, in hopes of explaining what could be the matter. Shortly after the results came in, things became a blur. The doctors at Nyack confirmed that there was a brain bleed, but couldn’t explain why. 

   Grace was suffering from internal bleeding and she needed to be transferred to another hospital, one more equipped to help her. From there everything moved with a frightening sense of urgency. Doctors at Nyack pushed for Grace to be transferred to Columbia.  

   My mother rushed to the hospital. She was greeted by a nurse who informed her that Grace was “with the priests.” At five months old she was receiving last rites. It became clear that Grace was dying. They were able to get her into Columbia. My mom and dad went with Grace into Manhattan, hoping that a miracle waited for them across the bridge.

 

   At this point the story becomes two fold. Described by two different parties, parents and doctor. Speaking with Dr. Ghatan everything seemed so clinical, so matter of fact. Grace was brought “in extremis.” Ghatan and his team ran tests on Grace and discovered that she had suffered an aneurysm, and the pressure on her brain caused a stroke. He was able to operate on Grace, performing a surgery which relieved pressure on the brain. And on Nov. 15, my mom’s birthday, Grace came out of surgery alive. A medical procedure performed successfully.

   But there is also my parents’ perspective. And if you asked them, this was no mere surgery; and Ghatan was no mere doctor. 

   “When the elevators opened, and he came out, a ray of golden light flooded the room,” my dad, Jim Russell, remembered. My parents compared their meeting with Dr. Ghatan to that of a chance encounter with a superhero. He charged off the elevator and took control, guiding my parents through the hospital’s winding maze. My parents claim he was kicking open doors, and clearing the path like an action movie star. Once in the operating room he didn’t just perform a surgery, but he worked a miracle. “He gave me the best birthday present I could ever ask for,” my mom, Jeanette Russell, said.

 

 

   That is how I have always heard of Dr. Ghatan. A man who was more myth than mortal. The genius surgeon who saved my sister’s life when all seemed hopeless. On my fridge, surrounded by family photos and Hershey Park magnets, was a picture of Dr. Ghatan and Grace when she was no older than five. For my entire childhood, I can remember seeing this picture and wanting to know more about the man on my fridge.

   On Jun. 25, 2022, Grace turned 18. Nearly two decades after the surgery, I found myself still so curious about the surgeon who saved her life. In the days leading up to Grace’s birthday, I reached out to Dr. Ghatan. We spoke twice, and after our conversations I feel like everyone should get the chance to know him.

 

 

   Dr. Saadi Ghatan grew up in Washington, but did his undergraduate at Princeton. There he studied both English and pre-med. Ghatan competed for the Tigers’ swim team, earning All-American honors in 1987 for the 800M Freestyle Relay. According to the man himself, it was all in an effort to keep himself “well-rounded.” But while Ghatan’s achievements in the pool were nothing short of spectacular, his pre-med grades were not the best. 

   “My pre-med work was not typically meeting the standards that were necessary to get into med-school,” Ghatan admitted. Acknowledging that he devoted his energy in an effort to be well-rounded, Ghatan finished his undergraduate program unsure of what to do next.

 

   After some debate, he returned home to Seattle, Washington. There he moved in with his brother, and the two of them sold cars for awhile. And while things were fine, the call to medicine never ceased. Ghatan worked hard to enter a post-baccalaureate pre-med program. A program which would allow him to improve his grades and become a more desirable candidate for medical school. 

   “That was probably the hardest gauntlet I had to pass,” Ghatan said. The program had GPA standards which Ghatan did not meet, leading him to apply twice before being accepted. Once in the program, Ghatan cut no corners. He worked as an orderly in a hospital and even worked in a lab to gain basic science skills. After advancing his GPA and MCAT score, Ghatan’s resume was strong enough to warrant admission into the University of Washington’s medical program.

   The path was never straight for Ghatan, and at times it seemed impossible, but he achieved what he set out for by never giving in and having a “nose to the grindstone” practice. In a way it mirrors the lives of many of his patients. 

   “The unique thing about pediatric neurosurgery is that when we do an intervention, we have to live with the consequences of that intervention for a long time,” Ghatan remarked. Some of his patients will come out of surgery with deficits, which make life more challenging. However, Ghatan stresses that his patients can still live a fulfilling life. That with perseverance, anything can be overcome. As he told my parents, “It’s going to be okay, but it is going to be tough.”

   While Grace was in the hospital, however, the situation did not seem okay for my parents. Grace suffered an aneurysm which led to a stroke. Doctors at Nyack Hospital swore that Grace couldn’t have suffered an aneurysm–they don’t occur in patients her age, or so they thought. Dr. Ghatan admits that the odds are rare for a baby to have suffered an aneurysm. 

   “Children in general have very few strokes and aneurysms make up a fraction of those strokes,” Ghatan said. In most children, strokes are caused by something called an Arteriovenous Malformation, a tangle of blood vessels which disrupts normal blood flow. And while AVMs are rare, Grace’s case was one in a million.

   What my parents probably did not know at the time was that Dr. Ghatan may have been the perfect surgeon to handle Grace’s case. During his time in medical school, Ghatan developed an interest in neurosurgery. He worked a research job calling families of patients who just received surgery for epilepsy. It was eye-opening how positive their outcomes were. He studied in Seattle and England doing clinical training along with scientific research. 

    His first job out of school was at Columbia, where he met Grace only a year or so on the job. “I had significant training in the type of problem she [Grace] had,” Ghatan shared. “As rare a problem as it is for a baby to have an aneurysm, I had intensive training in how to manage aneurysms during my time in Seattle.”  While in residency, Ghatan worked on 100 aneurysm cases in a period of six months. He had the training necessary to handle the situation calmly, while also assuring my family that Grace would be alright.

   Dr. Ghatan performed a hemicraniectomy, removing part of Grace’s skull in an effort to reduce intracranial pressure. To an outside party, this procedure may seem grim, especially when performed on such a young child. This is why Ghatan stresses the importance of communicating effectively with parents. In emergency cases, such as Grace’s, Ghatan may only have five minutes to speak with the parents before operating. In that time he urges parents not to lose hope and to focus on the moment. 

  “The discussion requires an honest description of the gravity of the situation, with the critical discipline not to cause people to lose hope,” Ghatan explained. “You have to focus on the fact that the situation is dire, and that without an intervention there is no chance of survival, but with an intervention a baby is resilient.” 

   My parents will always remember Ghatan and how reassuring he was throughout everything. At one point he cautioned my parents about Grace’s recovery before leaving the hospital saying, “This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint.” Recovery is a winding road, with peaks, valleys and plateaus. The arduous process of recovery may become discouraging for some, especially when it seems like progress has come to a stand still, but Ghatan offers a different perspective. 

   “If you’ve already faced and overcome that challenge, then the sky’s the limit,” said Ghatan. 

   It is that sense of hope and optimism which has helped Grace blossom into the person she is. Had Dr. Ghatan not taken the time to speak with my parents and encourage them to treat Grace like she had endless potential, then she may not have succeeded like she has. Children like Grace will see dozens of doctors throughout their young lives. Each one of those doctors is going to have an opinion on what a patient will be capable of. 

    “[Parents] will probably hear many mixed messages,” Ghatan said, “which can be daunting”. 

   While parents will get opinions from all sides, Ghatan warns them not to be bogged down by it. Parents need to look at recovery in a broader view, he explained, and focus on the small victories. Then a decade or so later, the results may be surprisingly positive. 

 

 

   Grace Russell is an example of everything Dr. Ghatan said. Despite the naysayers and pessimists, Grace has thrived. She is the type of person who makes everyone around her happier. Her infectious laugh and slick sense of humor keep people smiling. She has overcome her disability and done things which some doctors said she never could; like rocking out on stage with her band. Grace’s recovery has been a long winding road, but luckily no one ever tried to hold her back.

 

   It is obvious to see why my family has such reverence for Dr. Ghatan. He radiates a sense of hope which sets his patients up for a successful recovery. His comforting words and encouraging presence keep parents from collapsing under the weight of such traumatic experiences.

   “I always think about that case, and about Grace, and about your parents in the annals of my experience as a neurosurgeon,” Dr. Ghatan shared with me. “So when I received your email and understood how good her quality of life is… it is incredibly gratifying.”

   Words cannot describe how grateful my family is for Dr. Ghatan and the work he did. As it turns out, he is much more than just the man on my fridge.

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