From First Craniotomy to First Book, Chief Neurosurgery Resident Travels a Fast Track

Ondrej Choutka, MD, with his most recent accomplishment. Photo by Mary Kemper/Mayfield Clinic.

Czech-born Ondrej Choutka, MD, has not only managed the demanding schedule of his sixth and final year of residency in the Department of Neurosurgery, he has also co-authored a recently published book on cervical spine surgery — an accomplishment that normally comes much later in a surgeon’s career.  Dr. Choutka, now the Chief Resident at University Hospital, completed this 3-year project with his mentor of almost 20 years, neurosurgeon Petr Suchomel, MD, PhD. The collaboration led to the publication of Reconstruction of the Upper Cervical Spine and Craniovertebral Junction.

With persistence to meet the publisher’s September 2010 deadline, the authors spent their summer vacation and much “free” time working over the Internet, reviewing and revising each other’s chapters—Dr. Choutka in Cincinnati and Dr. Suchomel in the Czech Republic. The book was published in December.

“It was hard to balance all my commitments — the book, the residency, and my family (a wife and two young children),” Dr. Choutka said. “But, it fit my vision. Even as a 6-year-old boy in Liberec, I wanted to become a surgeon.”

“My family laughed at my dream in the beginning,” Dr. Choutka added. “I once fainted at the site of blood.”

Like other Czechoslovakian children, Ondrej was expected to choose a career path at age 14. He picked medicine and subsequently left for high school in England. Home on holiday at age 16, a neighbor arranged for Ondrej to meet Petr Suchomel, the town’s sole neurosurgeon. By the next day, Ondrej was observing in his operating room. Memories of that day’s operations remain vivid: “a shunt placement in a newborn, a cervical spine operation to fix a fracture, and a meningioma removal.”

Thereafter, many of his vacations were spent shadowing his mentor in surgery. Holding his acceptance letter as proof that he would be attending medical school at Oxford University, 18-year-old Ondrej was allowed to perform his first craniotomy under the guidance of Dr. Suchomel.  “However, had I known all the things that could go wrong with a torcular craniotomy, I would not have done it,” Dr. Choutka reflected. “I was young and without fear.”

The surgery did go well, with Ondrej using only a hand-held drill, not the pneumatic high-speed drill used today for removal of a portion of the skull.

At Oxford, Dr. Choutka received his Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery degree and completed his initial surgical training, which included a post in Australia. He continued to collaborate with Dr. Suchomel, helping to translate medical papers into English.

En route from Australia, during a layover in Cincinnati, Dr. Choutka reconnected with one of his Oxford mentors who had since joined the Department of Neurology at the University of Cincinnati. During his brief stay here, Dr. Choutka received an offer to spend 2004-2005 in fellowship training at The Christ Hospital. The fellowship experience persuaded Dr. Choutka to continue his neurosurgery residency training here in 2005 rather than returning to England. “Even if it meant repeating a few years, UC and the Mayfield Clinic offer tremendous neurosurgical training that I would have not gotten in the UK.”

Throughout his residency, Dr. Choutka continued his collaborations with Dr. Suchomel. “Petr is an honest and direct person as well as a great surgeon,” Dr. Choutka said. “While he expects a lot from his trainees, he also puts a lot into his relationships with his young surgeons providing them with continuous feedback on what they’re doing right or wrong and helping them improve. There’s no fluff, and I appreciated that.”

When Dr. Suchomel was approached by the publisher Springer to write a book about spinal diseases and disorders, he promptly asked Dr. Choutka to join him as co-author. “The idea behind the book was to share Dr. Suchomel’s specialized knowledge about surgery at the craniovertebral junction – the uppermost area of the spine where it connects to the head – with the general spine surgeon, who likely treats fewer patients and sees fewer complex cases of this region,” Dr. Choutka said. “The reader will hopefully appreciate the tricks of the trade as well as many nuances on how to avoid trouble during reconstruction of this part of the spine.”

“I have learnt a great deal during this timely and difficult endeavor,” Dr. Choutka added. “And I am very happy to be finally holding a hard copy of the book in my hands.”

— Mary Kemper

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