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Becoming a Top Neurosurgeon: A Q&A with Dr. Robert E. Harbaugh ’74
04.02.14 |

Dr. Robert E. Harbaugh ’74 has achieved eminence just a few miles west of the Valley. He is the University Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Harbaugh is also a professor in Penn State’s Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics and director of the university’s Institute of the Neurosciences. He is a director of the American Board of Neurological Surgery and a member of the National Football League’s Injury Surveillance and Head, Neck and Spine committees. This April he became president of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.

Harbaugh earned his medical degree from Penn State College of Medicine in 1978 and completed his neurosurgery residency at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. In 1997, he received an LVC Alumni Citation and in 2004 he received the College’s Distinguished Alumni Award. He has also served on the College’s Board of Trustees.

How did you acquire your competitive spirit?

I’ve always been a competitive person, from grade school on, in academics and athletics and everything else. People are born that way I suspect.

What motivates you?

It’s a lot of things. You do want to perform at the top of your ability—I always feel bad if I think that I haven’t given something my best shot. In competitive situations, of course you’d rather win than lose. And then as you go on in your career, if you’re successful I think you start to say, “I don’t want to do this just for me, I want to do this for my department, or my university, or my organization.” You’d feel bad if you didn’t do your best for the people you’re working with and for.

What activities, people, or courses at LVC helped you prepare for success?

First of all, one of the really nice things about being a student at Lebanon Valley is that you were really able to get to know your professors, and I had some marvelous professors. For example, there were two biology professors, they were known as Big Wolf and Little Wolfe [Paul L. Wolf, professor emeritus of biology, and Allan F. Wolfe, professor of biology]. They were both very supportive and charismatic. They obviously loved teaching and they had a big influence on me.

When I was at Lebanon Valley, examinations were almost always blue-book examinations—you had to write essays, show your thought process, and work through a problem. I don’t think I saw a multiple-choice question until I entered medical school. That preparation, having to know the material, put it down on paper, and convince your professors that you understood what you were talking about, was a very important part of the preparation there.

As a senior, I had classes where there were two students with one professor—it was a tutorial type of relationship. You really had to know your material so you learned it in a different way than you would at a bigger university. There was an awful lot of opportunity, particularly in the Biology Department, for independent study, both in the class structure that you chose and in the research opportunities.

How has global competition changed your field?

I think it hasn’t for neurosurgery. The United States is clearly the world leader in neurosurgery technology and innovation. We don’t get a lot of global competition. Although medical tourism is increasing, I think that’s been extraordinarily rare for neurosurgical patients because by and large the best neurosurgical care can be obtained in this country. There are other countries with superb neurosurgeons, but they are not better equipped to handle neurosurgical problems than we are. Conversely, since I have been at Hershey I have had patients come here from as far away as Mexico and Iceland for neurosurgical care.

What’s most important to remain competitive in your field?

One of the things that we’re really focused on now is trying to make sure that we meet the patients’ expectations. For a long time our definition of quality in neurosurgery was based solely on what our peers thought. I could say whether someone was a high-quality neurosurgeon based on his or her intellectual accomplishments, diagnostic acumen, and technical expertise. Now, we have to ask ‘is the patient satisfied?’ ‘Are we giving them the service that they expect?’ You have to be a good doctor, not just a good technical surgeon, and part of being a good doctor is how you communicate with the patients and meet their needs.

How do you prepare physically and mentally for competition?

I have three cases on the schedule for tomorrow. Tonight, I’m going to review each of those by mentally going through the cases step by step. You want to prepare physically as well, get to bed on time. I usually drink a lot of coffee, but I don’t on the days I’m operating. That kind of preparation is important. There’s a lot about surgery that’s similar to an athletic event. It can be physically and mentally demanding.

Who is your favorite competitive role model?

I have a few neurosurgical role models including Charles Drake, a neurosurgeon in Canada who I worked with for a while. A wonderful person, terrific intellect, outstanding technical surgeon, and when I think about what I do, I’d like to emulate him. Another is Richard Saunders, who was my chief when I was a resident and junior faculty member [at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center], who was also a superb surgeon, doctor, and person. Finally, Thoralf Sundt, who was a neurosurgeon at the Mayo Clinic who I got to know, also had those qualities. I look at those men as the epitome of the profession and people I’d like to emulate.

Do you have a guiding philosophy about competition?

Always do your best. Always play fair. Don’t be satisfied with losing and try to do better the next time.

Which leaders inspire you? Why?

I have some very good friends in neurosurgery—my colleagues around the country—it would be hard to pick any one of them. We’ve grown up in the profession together and share national responsibility for the specialty. I am also inspired by my colleagues in the Department of Neurosurgery, who do so much every day for their patients.

What makes LVC competitive?

The quality of the education and the fact that you get a real mentoring relationship in your major with the professors makes LVC competitive. I spent much of my career at Dartmouth, and it’s a very good undergraduate university, but even there much of the teaching was done by teaching assistants, not by the faculty.

What advice would you give to current LVC students?

Pick something you really love to do and always do your best. Then work will be fun and you will almost always be successful.

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