As a neurosurgeon at the Houston VA Medical Center and Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Ali Jalali enjoys getting to know his Veteran patients and learning about their military service. This week, Jalali and a team of VA doctors got to hear a Marine Corps Veteran talk about his service in the Persian Gulf while they performed an awake craniotomy to remove his brain tumor.

The Veteran shared stories of his multiple tours to Afghanistan while VA surgeons removed a brain tumor during a complex and painstaking operation.

This was the first “awake” brain tumor surgery at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center. It was a resounding success, and the Veteran was discharged and sent home with his family just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Monitor critical brain functions

“Keeping the Veteran awake during this complex surgery allowed our medical team to continuously monitor and protect his critical brain functions while maximizing the extent of tumor removal,” Jalali said. “Our team performed flawlessly. It was particularly interesting to hear the Veteran talk about his deployments as the surgery progressed.”

Brain tumors are often located in regions of the brain that control specific functions, such as movement or speech. During an awake craniotomy, a neurosurgeon uses sophisticated mapping technology to physically map out parts of the brain that control speech and motor functions prior to tumor removal.

The Houston VA team in the surgery included neurosurgeons, anesthesiologists, neurologists and neuropsychologists as well as highly experienced nurses and operating room staff.

Patient gives real-time feedback during surgery

“In this type of surgery, the anesthesiologist initially puts the patient to sleep,” Jalali said. “They then wake him or her up once the brain surface is exposed. The patient gives us real-time feedback during the surgery that guides us through the process.”

According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 25,000 people are diagnosed with this type of brain tumor every year. This makes it a relatively common cancer.

“Pretty much every part of the brain has a function,” Jalali explained. “We try and remove these tumors, or as much of them as possible, while preserving people’s function and their quality of life. Certain complex functions in critical brain areas are best mapped and protected while the patient is awake.”

Veterans are courageous and welcome challenges

The results of the surgery can save or prolong lives. Still, the thought of being awake during surgery can be intimidating for some patients.

“Veterans are inherently courageous and welcoming of challenging situations,” Jalali added. “That’s true whether helping to defend the country or staying awake during brain surgery to help the surgeon. “We are thrilled to bring this highly specialized procedure to our Veterans at Houston VA. They deserve nothing but the best, most modern care, and Houston VA is here to give it to them.”

By Maureen Dyman is communications director for the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center

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Published on Dec. 7, 2021

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One Comment

  1. Earl Harman December 9, 2021 at 6:52 pm

    It’s amazing what doctors can do. I have had several surgeries at the Seattle VA and I have nothing but good things to say about my doctors. My sister in law died of a brain tumor a little over a year ago. She had the tumor removed, but died a little over a year after the surgery.

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