News & Press

March 21, 2014

A Pillar of Care

Jason Boyd for Latino Leaders


Without a warm, caring doctor, the greatest medical advancement is still just a new procedure.

Earlier this year, Neurosurgeon Juan Alzate began using “The Six Pillar Approach” at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in the Midwestern Regional Medical Center, the first hospital in Chicago, and among the first in the U.S., to offer it.

A confluence of technological advancements — the new NICO BrainPath, together with brain navigation, brain mapping, tumor removal, optics and resection — its focus is to safely reach deep tumors and cysts in the brain. The fight doesn’t stop in the operating room, but the ability to operate adds invaluable time to the lives of patients staring death in the face.

“The tumors that we deal with, nobody was touching,” Alzate said. “Before, patients really had no other option but to get some radiation throughout the entire brain and that’s it. Now, we can access those tumors.”

Furthermore, as much as 90 percent of his patients, previously inoperable, go home the day following this minimally invasive surgery.

“Such a significant change just with the improvement of technology,” Alzate said. “And hopefully, in the future, we’re going to be able to cure those patients.”

Because it provides minimally invasive access to those deep tumors, it may help surgeons using stem cells for 10-15 years from now.

“I think, one day, the real change will come when we arrive with a tube to take some cells from that tumor, send them to the lab, culture and create stem cells and put them back into the tumor- that will be the only way to cure these tumors,” he said. “That will be the future.”

Although advancements will come, Alzate said he now sees doctors losing something readily available: touch with their human side.

“We become so mechanical, especially when we do a spine or all of these kind of surgical interventions,” he said. “Most of the doctors don’t realize that surgery, even if we perform that surgery ten times a week, for each patient it is a completely new experience.”

Alzate, like other surgeons, sees an average of 100 patients per week. It’s hard for any doctor to provide personalized care in five minutes, but that doesn’t stop Alzate from trying.

During his fellowship in pediatric neurosurgery, he worked with children as young as three-years-old with cancer. All they wanted to do was live to the age of five.

“Patients with cancer, they already know and they understand really well,” he said. “Usually when they come to you, they have read and learned about what they have. And there is no point of sugarcoating something that cannot be sugarcoated.”

But his bluntness is not without love. At home, his wife reprimands him, he said, for his lack of a filter; once, without preamble, Alzate told a friend that he was “getting fat.” ‘My wife says, ‘My god, be careful what you say,’” Alzate said, telling the story. “‘I’m like, why? I’m just talking.’ My talk is with no filters.”

But, for Alzate, it’s all in how you say it. When you come from a warm place, you can be honest and loving at the same time.

It started in Buga, Valle del Cauca, Columbia.

“Typical family, we are eight — either seven or eight,” Alzate said. “And, you know, my parents struggled to survive and [did] whatever they could do- my father sold whatever he could.”

This family, who he still sees twice a year in addition to frequent conversations via Skype with his mother, was his closest companion.

“Big family; in Columbia, basically we have no friends,” Alzate said.

This lack of a formal wall helps with patients. Today, when Alzate enters a room and sees a patient wrecked by his or her stress, he starts with touch.

“[I] just touch the shoulder, for a second, and say, ‘This is what we’re gonna do,’” he said. “That touch, which is not medical, is really important.”

Tenderness is not the only thing he learned early. There was also hard work. Back in Buga, there were really only two paths out of poverty. “The only way out is go to become a drug dealer or go to study,” he said. “And I chose to study.”

Thankfully, Alzate said, he was able to get into the Universidad del Valle Medical School in Cali, Columbia on scores alone. In the past, it was more important who you knew. But once admitted, the young student didn’t know what to do with his time or his ambition.

“I didn’t know any better,” he said. “I came from a poor family, a poor country, and they tell you, ‘You are a doctor, you are a doctor. You’re gonna be fine.’”

However, that didn’t fill his social calendar. So, he filled it with studying his chosen trade. The hospital was his hangout, and, over time Alzate eventually worked his way into observing surgeries.

“Every Friday, Saturday night, I had nothing to do, I would ask, “‘hey, can I go with you into surgery?’”

Since, he has worked and studied in Berlin and New York under renowned teachers. He said he hopes Latinos in America, who often times, already work harder than others just to be in the country, understand there are many pathways to success for the willing.

“You want something, you have to work,” he said. “The politics right now in the United States is to not expect that the government will give you anything. If you want something, you should get it. And the only way to get it, is to fight for it.”

Through all his lessons and future hard work — he sees himself being a counselor on how to avoid cancer toward the end of his career. Alzate still remembers one thing, above all others, and it is a lesson in humanity: “Being a neurosurgeon doesn’t mean you need to be an a**hole,” Alzate said. “You need to be a person.”