Dr. Spetzler Sets the Standard for BNI

As a 5-year-old boy in his native Germany, there was one thing Robert Spetzler knew for certain: he wanted to become a neurosurgeon.


Sixty years later, as director of Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, Robert F. Spetzler, M.D., has performed thousands of brain surgeries and has earned recognition as one of the top neurosurgeons in the world. He was recently named one of the most influential people in Phoenix’s history.


Spetzler grew interested in the medical field when, as a young child, he was injured and became one of the first individuals to receive a new miracle drug – penicillin – for tetanus, a usually fatal disease. After months in the hospital and as the subject of much medical attention, Spetzler was convinced that he wanted to help save the lives of others.


A forward thinker, Spetzler was drawn to Barrow in 1983 by its potential to raise the bar of knowledge in the neurosciences – not just in patient care, but also in research and medical education. One of his proudest accomplishments, he says, is teaching the next generation of neurosurgeons through Barrow’s brain surgery residency program, the largest in the nation.


And he has a lot to teach. He has pioneered multiple surgical techniques and tools now used around the world, and he has performed more brain aneurysm procedures – approaching 6,000 – than any other neurosurgeon.


“I have been a surgeon for more than 30 years, and my job is either agony or ecstasy. As a brain surgeon, I never forget the miracles who shake my hand and walk out of here,” Spetzler says. “But there are other times when the heartbreak is very real for everyone involved, including the medical team.”



Spetzler’s drive isn’t limited to medicine. He’s a swimmer, marathoner and extreme skier. He’s completed a 206-mile bike race from Utah to Wyoming, beating some of his residents and winning his age group.


Each year, he leads a group of colleagues across the Grand Canyon and, on another hike, down the North Fork of Oak Creek Canyon, a trek affectionately known at Barrow as the “hike from hell.”


The married father of two says it’s all about balance. “I believe there are two blessings in life: to be happy at home and to be happy at work. I have been incredibly blessed on both counts. In large part, it is your attitude that paves your road to happiness.”


Photos courtesy St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center

Story by Sarah Padilla



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