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Photograph by Whitney Curtis, Illustration by Sam Wiley
Dr. Saleem Abdulrauf had planned on becoming a professional soccer player. He even went to college on a soccer scholarship. But when he was injured during his junior year, he spent the summer working with Dr. Dennis O’Leary, who's now a top-flight researcher in molecular neurobiology research at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. “I lived in his home for the summer, and he was doing transplants of neural tissue in animals,” says Abdulrauf. “I was completely taken by it. So then I planned to go to med school to become a neurosurgeon.”
As a former athlete, Abdulrauf—who's now chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at Saint Louis University—doesn’t do things by halves. After performing standard brain bypass surgery for several years, he developed a new way of doing it, now known as the Abdulrauf bypass.
Normally, when a patient has a large brain aneurysm, an artery is removed from the leg or arm, connected to the carotid artery in the neck, and fed from the neck to the brain. With another source of blood flow to the brain, the artery with the aneurysm can be clamped off. This invasive 12-hour procedure came with a long recovery time and big scars. Abdulrauf’s bypass doesn’t involve the neck at all;
instead, it connects two arteries in the brain to bypass the aneurysm, using a smaller vessel from the arm.
“I thought about this idea some years ago,” says Abdulrauf, who now teaches the procedure—there are about 10 doctors in the U.S. who can do it—and wrote a textbook about it. “When I started in this field, we didn’t have the right instruments, because they had to be so tiny at the tip.” So Abdulrauf made them. They’re about 0.3 millimeters across, and long enough to go deep into the brain.
“We felt like we were really taking the field to a different level,” explains Abdulrauf. “Neurosurgery is the youngest field in medicine. Where general surgery was 100 years ago, neurosurgery is today. Many of my colleagues and I are very fortunate that we are the people who are developing the field and taking it to that next level.”
And that progress matters: “The number of patients you see is very small. But if you can do something that impacts patients you would never see by teaching other [doctors], there’s nothing better.”