When Keith Black was 8 years old, his mom caught him dissecting a chicken heart by the side of their house. Instead of reprimanding the boy, Black's dad brought him home a cow heart the following week. In 10th grade, Black performed his first surgery; at 17, he performed his first organ transplant. Shortly thereafter, at a time when other kids are making volcanoes for the science fair, Black published his first research paper: “The discocyte-echinocyte transformation as an index of human red blood cell trauma.”
It was clear early on that he was, as the saying goes, kind of a big deal.
At 54, Keith Black is now Dr. Keith Black, chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery and director of the Brain Tumor Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. In the field, he's known for figuring out how to get chemotherapeutic drugs past the blood-brain barrier so they can be delivered directly into the tumor.
He also is known as the go-to guy for extremely difficult brain surgeries. To put that in perspective, there are some 3,400 neurosurgeons in the United States. Eighty percent of those focus on spine operations. Only a handful — fewer than 100 individuals — do what is understood to be brain tumor surgery. And of those, Black is one of the few surgeons to whom other neurosurgeons send their most challenging cases.
Black's modus operandi is to find a safe corridor, sneak up on the tumor “like a thief in the night” and have as little contact with the brain matter as possible. “Get the tumor, and get it out,” he explains, “without the brain ever realizing you were there.”
At the end of the day, how a patient fares depends on how much of the tumor one removes. Thus, there is a fine line between safe and harmful. Stay too safe, and you don't get all the cancer out. Be too aggressive, and you risk causing terrible things, like blindness, paralysis and speech loss. Getting right up to the edge of that envelope, Black says, is most difficult.
Sitting in his office, where bluish-pinkish jellyfish float in their corner tank like so many brains in a jar, Black is serious and soft-spoken, with a quiet sense of humor. His fingers are slim and tapered. He loves surgery because you can see its immediate benefits. Being able to restore function in a patient is the best feeling in the world. Plus, you get to work with your hands.
And it's a good thing he's got that brain surgery thing going, because his golf game, he says, pretty much sucks.