Ziya Gokaslan P’18 can trace his desire to be a doctor back to his childhood. His father was a surgeon, and his older brother is now an oncologist. Conversations centered on medicine were common in his childhood home, and he would go to the hospital with his father and observe doctors as they performed procedures and autopsies.
Today, Gokaslan is the chair of neurosurgery at the Alpert Medical School and chief of neurosurgery at the Rhode Island Hospital and Miriam Hospital. He leads a team of extremely specialized physicians, surgeons and researchers who work every day to push boundaries in patient care and scientific discovery.
“The mission of our department is to provide the most advanced and compassionate care to our patients, to train future leaders in neurosurgery and to advance our field through research and innovation,” Gokaslan wrote in his chairman’s message.
Gokaslan did not always intend to become a neurosurgeon. His initial interest was in cardiac surgery, but while in medical school he found the repetitive nature of the heart procedures he learned to be intellectually under-stimulating. He craved a challenge, and learning how to operate on the brain and spine offered exactly that. After rotating in neurosurgery, “I fell in love with it,” he said.
Gokaslan has since developed expertise in chordoma, a rare spinal cancer that leads to tumorous growths in the spine. “It is really one in a million in terms of its incidence in the United States,” he said, adding that there are roughly 350 estimated new cases per year.
About every four to six weeks, he sees a patient with chordoma — some of whom have traveled from across the globe to get his expert opinion or to have their tumor operated on at Rhode Island Hospital.
The disease originates in notochordal cells, which are cells that give rise to the discs that lie between each vertebrae in the spine. As they grow, chordoma tumors may destroy the nerves that run through the spaces they occupy, most commonly at the base of the skull or above the tailbone, thereby impairing functionality as the disease progresses, Gokaslan said. Some tumors have been seen to surpass even the size of a watermelon before they are removed, he added. At advanced stages, tumors may also spread to other regions of the body.
Though Gokaslan still spends roughly two days a week in the operating room performing spinal surgeries, his position as chief of neurosurgery, which he assumed in 2015, involves responsibilities ranging from administrative to educational to research-based work.
Gokaslan’s tenure as chair thus far has been characterized by extensive expansion. Not only has the size of the department grown, but new grant funding has facilitated novel research efforts involving collaborations between physicians at the Med School and scientists who run labs at the University, Gokaslan said.
“When I took over the position here, we had only six faculty members,” Gokaslan said. “We have now 14 faculty members. We had barely, maybe a laboratory, now we have six different laboratories.”
In addition to the new labs, the neurosurgery department has expanded its residency program, added a fellowship program and increased the number of patients they can take each year, he added.
Gokaslan has also helped launch a neurological intensive care unit at the Rhode Island Hospital. “We have 18 beds (that) are dedicated to patients with neurosurgical disorders and stroke,” he said. “We have a dedicated neuroscience floor (and) a dedicated spine floor.”
Curtis Doberstein, professor of neurosurgery and a previous chair of the department who has been at the Med School for 23 years, said the recent growth has been “exponential.” He added, “as a department, from that 23-year perspective, it’s never been better — it has not even been close to better than this.”
“We have been able to do all of these things within the last three and a half years,” Gokaslan said. “I believe that our department is now a very comprehensive, highly competitive and fully integrated academic neurosurgery program.”
“Gokaslan is widely recognized as both a superb surgeon, particularly in the area of spinal oncology, but also for his national leadership in a number of our leading societies,” wrote M. Sean Grady, chair of neurosurgery at Penn, in an email to The Herald. Gokaslan currently serves as president of the Neurosurgery Foundation, according to the Brown Neurosurgery website.
For aspiring neurosurgeons, Gokaslan emphasized the importance of early involvement and the necessity of developing a deep understanding of the foundations of the nervous system. Neurosurgery is “a highly technical area,” Gokaslan said. “Sometimes it’s not exactly like how it is featured in the movies or TV series.”