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Students Extract Replica Tumors, Practice Sutures At Cedars-Sinai

Benjamin Gottlieb |
February 14, 2012 | 1:14 a.m. PST

Executive Editor

Aaron LaHood operates on a mock skull at the Cedars-Sinai 'Brainworks' seminar.
Aaron LaHood operates on a mock skull at the Cedars-Sinai 'Brainworks' seminar.
Hovering around two endoscopic video monitors, more than 130 middle school students from across Los Angeles took turns extracting imitation tumors from phantom human skulls on Monday as part of the Cedars-Sinai neurosurgery department’s ‘Brainworks’ seminar.

Held in the Cedars-Sinai Harvey Morse Auditorium, the annual event is designed to inspire students from low-income families to peruse careers in science and medicine, said Dr. Michael Alexander, a neurologist at Cedars Sinai Medical Center. In order to connect with the participating students, the ‘Brainworks’ seminar evokes a hands-on learning experience, a technique the hospital believes allows students to relate tangibly to what they are learning.

“These are the exact computer screens and tools our residents use to train for surgery,” said Dr. Lindsey Ross, a Cedars-Sinai neurosurgeon who spoke at the seminar. “I think the real-life aspect of this seminar really helps inspire the students.”

After listening to an hour-long lecture and presentation on the hospital’s neurology division, the students – mostly seventh and eighth graders – huddled curiously around a two model human skulls. The students then took turns simulating brain surgery, takings turns digging through a Jell-O-crafted brain, removing strawberries posing as brain tumors from the skulls on the operating table.

Seventh grader Aaron LaHood said he felt like he was operating on a real person after extracting a pin-sized bit of strawberry. But he conceded the simulation might not have prepared him fully for a real-life brain surgery.

“Because it wasn’t a real person, this is a lot easier.” LaHood, who attends the Lighthouse School in Santa Monica, said. “But it was cool to see how to actually do surgery.”

In addition to simulating brain surgery with students, hospital staffers helped the middle schoolers hold and dissect real sheep’s brains, examine microscope slides of brain tumors and even practice removing staples from a mock skull. While the bulk of the students seemed fully engaged in the provided activities, some were perfectly content frolicking around the event in medical scrubs. 

But that was perfectly okay with the Cedars-Sinai staff. Alexander, who lectured at the event, said he would consider the seminar was a success if he was only able to inspire just one future doctor.

“A lot of these kids think they can’t go into medicine,” said Alexander, who specializes in minimally invasive techniques to clear blocked brain arteries. “Hopefully we can inspire kids, particularly those who come from modest upbringings, to pursue their goals, especially in medicine.”

Alexander said he could relate to a number of the unprivileged students who attended Monday’s seminar. Growing up on a farm the Midwest, Alexander lived in a trailer with his family during the third-grade. He is the first in his family to go on to medical school and become a doctor, he said.

“After my father died of a stroke at 55, I was compelled to become a neurosurgeon,” Alexander said. “I am living proof that if you work hard, you can achieve your goals, whatever they may be.”

Also on display at the seminar were some of the Cedar-Sinai’s groundbreaking technologies, including a knife-less form of brain surgery called “Gamma Knife.”

The procedure calls for patients with brain tumors to have their heads placed inside a spherical apparatus, much like an industrial dryer at a hair salon. Gamma rays are then used to pinpoint tumors and zap them without cutting open the skull. 

The procedure has also been found to be beneficial in the treatment of other medical conditions, such as arteriovenous malformation or AVM, a congenital condition in which arteries and veins in the brain are connected abnormally.

The Cedars-Sinai Medical Center is the largest hospital on the west coast and a leader in the field of neurology. Since Alexander joined Cedars-Sinai in 2007, the hospital’s four-doctor neurovascular program has become one of the largest referral centers in the country.

“In order to continue our advancements in medicine, we need to encourage the next generation of scientists and doctors,” Alexander said. “Hopefully programs like ‘Brainworks’ are the answer.”


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