you will be greatly missed …
It is with a complete and utter sense of loss and sadness that I write to you, as your newly elected NASBS President, to announce the passing of a giant figure from the world of Neurosurgery, Skull Base Surgery, Neuroanatomy and Medicine in general. Albert L. Rhoton, one of the most celebrated Neurosurgeons and Past Presidents of the NASBS, left us on February 21, 2016. It is customary, at this point in the eulogy of a man of such stature, to proceed and list a lifetime of professional accomplishments. But then Al Rhoton is no ordinary giant, even among giants. And because of this, this eulogy will break with tradition, for this man was simply incomparable. Instead of starting with the achievements of his mind, I would like to reflect first on the indelible memories left by his heart.
“You give but little, when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give”, said Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese-American literary genius. There was no more authentic and sincere giver than Al Rhoton, the greatest of all educators. With the excitement of a child with no care in the world, and the generosity of a fountain that would not stop flowing; with an innocence never seen in a man of his years, and a kindness seldom offered by a figure larger than life; with a sincerity that knew no bounds, and a gentleness that contrasted his figure; with a passion disguised as serenity, and civility mistaken for passivity; with all these and many other remarkable attributes, the “Encyclopedia Rhoton-ica” gave and gave and kept giving. He taught a lot, taught often, taught with love. He taught us all, from when we started in the field to when we retired from the field. He travelled far, he spoke to few and spoke to many. He spoke in shacks and spoke in castles. The joy was equal. No task was too onerous, no hurdle was too difficult when teaching was at stake. He never said no, he loved all, he had no temper; he had equanimity, he had resolve, he oozed integrity; he had faith, in man and in God; his brand of goodness simply dwarfed the most pious among us. Next to this man, we are all sinners, in our religious or moral lives.
It is often said, and quite correctly, that life is not fair, for the most undeserving men seem to summit and conquer Mount Success. Well for once, life is fair, for the humblest of its servants broke the mold and shone like a beacon. The boy born in a shack in Parvin, Kentucky never forgot his roots, and in spite of him not seeking honors and recognitions, they found him. How could they miss him? He has served as President of the AANS, CNS, the SNS, Florida Neurological Society, the North American Skull Base Society, the International Interdisciplinary Congress on Craniofacial and Skull Base Surgery, the International Society for Neurological Technology and Instrument Intervention, and the International Society for the Study of Microsurgical Anatomy. He has also served as Vice Chairman of the ABNS, Chairman of the Joint Section on Cerebrovascular Surgery, Governor of the ACS, and a Member of the Neurosurgery Appeals Panel of the ACGME. He received an Alumni Achievement Award from the Washington University School of Medicine, the Cushing Medal of the AANS, the Medal of Honor of the World Federation of Neurosurgical Societies, and the Golden Neuron Award of the World Academy of Neurological Surgery. He has also received the Founders’ Laurel Award and been the Honored Guest of the CNS. He has been the Honored Guest or elected to honorary membership in more than 20 neurosurgical societies throughout the world. He has served on the Editorial Board of more than one dozen journals and has authored more than 400 articles and two books. And he has trained legions of adoring neurosurgeons.
Perhaps the best way to remember the man is to never forget the remarkable and inspirational story – undoubtedly known to many of you – he liked to tell about becoming a doctor and his dedication to medicine. He used to say that if God had come to earth and had told him as a young man: “Al, if you knew, at the beginning of your life, that you had to go through 12 years for schooling, 4 years of undergraduate education, 4 years of medical school, 7 years of residency, sit through countless exams, sacrifice family and social life, and that at the end of all these harrowing years, you at last would become a neurosurgeon; but that all this studying and suffering was for the sake of saving the life of, not thousands, but only a single patient, would you go through it?” And with the sincerity and tenacity of a man of vocation, Al would answer “Yes, I would absolutely do it”, unequivocally. When my resident heard him tell this story, she teared. I almost did. For she and I knew, we were in the presence of a special man. She and I knew there is no other mortal who would give the same answer and mean it.
Dear Al, if Heaven exists, we know you made it there and have already started feverishly rearranging and reclassifying its anatomy, to the dismay of all its angels! You may have left us, but we will never have to remember you, for remembrance implies forgetting at first. How can we forget you? Like the fabric of space-time that engulfs us, you created for us the fabric of neuroanatomy and the tools to operate on it, in that “gentle, delicate, accurate” way. Like a true Messiah of sorts, you revealed hidden truths to us. Your prodigious intellect has bequeathed thousands of images and notes for posterity. The entire medical community will spend the coming years celebrating and benefiting from your achievements. The NASBS will honor you and celebrate you in our upcoming 2017 Annual Meeting. Your boyhood dreams have been realized multiple folds. But you have failed – if it can be called a failure – in one regard, and that is simply because of your unique humility. You thought that all you were teaching us all these years were anatomical maps and facts and techniques, a window to your mind. Little could you suspect, in your self-effacing demeanor, that your even greater contribution, for generations to come, is to have enriched our hearts too, by allowing us – unknowingly – a window of exposure into one of the greatest medical souls that have ever lived.
Jacques J. Morcos, MD, FRCS, FAANS