‘Every spinal cord injury is dramatic’

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Professor Claudius Thomé is director of the University of Innsbruck Medical Centre for Neurosurgery. He has been treating patients with brain or spine diseases and injuries for nearly 20 years, so he knows all about the intensive care needed for people with traumatic spinal cord injuries. We had a chance to sit down with him to learn more about his exciting work.

You have been a member of the Wings for Life internal board for almost one year. How did that come about?
Over the last few years, I’ve focused on the spine in my research activities. As spokesperson for the German Organization for Neurosurgery, I had already been on several committees and heard of Wings for Life. Wings for Life is an organisation that is constantly moving forward with their work, so accepting was an easy decision when I was invited to join Wings for Life as a board member.

What is your day-to-day work like?
If I’m not travelling to the many conferences I go to each year, after getting to the clinic around 7 a.m., I do my ward rounds until 7:30., then I head for our morning meeting. From 8 a.m. to 1 or 2 p.m., I’m in theatre, doing surgery. Most of the afternoon is taken up by meetings before I check up on the patients again. There is so much additional administrative work to get through that I rarely leave the clinic before 8 p.m. And two days a week, I work longer into the evening.

What type of surgery do you do most regularly?
Anything concerning neurosurgery from the brain to the spine. We remove tumours in the brain, treat herniated discs and distortions of the spine. And, of course, traumatic spinal cord injuries are important cases.

How do you emotionally cope with the fate of your patients?
If I were to ignore their fate, I would not be able to do my best for their treatment. It is of utmost importance that I always keep their fate in mind, but I have to stay objective and not let emotions get the better of me. My surgeries have to be non-emotional and mechanical. Spinal cord injuries, for instance: They dramatically change a person’s life within seconds.

Is there a story that affected you?
Every spinal cord injury is dramatic. I remember the case of an 18-year-old woman. She was sleeping on the backseat of her car when a man, probably under the influence of drugs, broke into the car. He just got behind the wheel and drove the car into a tree. We do not know if the girl woke up, but she didn’t have a seatbelt on, and she suffered horrendous cervical spine injuries. Even though she stayed with us a few days, she, unfortunately, died in the end.

Are there also patients for whom the treatment went better than expected?
Fortunately there are a lot of these cases -- frustration would be huge, otherwise. There is also a number of patients who, despite having suffered from dramatic spinal cord injuries, are partially or even fully recovered after the treatment.

You also do a lot of research. How is that developing?
Research on the spinal cord has had a lot more attention in the past few years. Ten years ago, neurosurgeons including myself concentrated their scientific investigations on cerebral diseases. Spinal cord research did not play that important a role as there seemed little hope for success. Times have changed and spinal cord research has been seen across the scientific magazines’ headlines of. We have gained a lot of knowledge, and it is really amazing what happened scientifically in the last years. The medical centre in Innsbruck wants to be part of this research and is currently building laboratories.

How has the intensive care of injured people developed in the past decade?
Great progress has been made. On the one hand, we have higher quality implants which enable us to carry out surgeries in a more optimized, safer way. On the other hand, preanasthesiology care has been improved. As a consequence, surgeries may be performed at an earlier point of time after the accident.

Prof. Dr. Claudius Thomé has received many awards for his research on neurosurgery , for example the European Association of Neurological Surgeons Clinical Research Award 2009. He is married and has three children.