Mind, Body and Spirit
Through Faith And Medicine, Rush-Copley Neurosurgeon Reaches Out To Restore Patients To Their Former Selves
By Donna DeFalco

When Jorge Salas took his first steps, he was surrounded by family and friends, who cried with joy. His neurosurgeon, Dr. Ramsis Ghaly, who visited Salas every day in the hospital during his recovery from brain surgery, was there to witness that pivotal event in the 54-year-old Aurora man's life.

Salas had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke March 8 and was in the intensive care unit for two weeks. The family didn't think he'd survive. Ghaly opened a hole in Salas' brain to relieve the pressure. Nineteen days later, his test results looked much better. Though Salas' left side is impaired, he responded well to physical therapy and, eventually, took his celebrated first steps.

Salas' sister, Martha Aranda of Aurora, said that Ghaly saved her brother's life. When the soft-spoken neurosurgeon refused to take credit, she insisted, "That's what you did, doctor." Aranda and Salas' father had died just over a year ago from the same type of stroke.

"They all told us that my father had a stroke because of high blood pressure," Aranda said. Her brother, who suffered a small stroke in 1999, had the classic warning signs including high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. But when the scare subsided after his first stroke, his sister said that Salas didn't take care of himself and refused to modify his lifestyle, which resulted in a second, more severe episode. The reason Aranda was pleased that her brother was at Rush-Copley Medical Center in Aurora is that it's close to home. She also appreciates Ghaly's patient- and family-centered philosophy of care. "We can ask questions. We feel we are involved in his treatment," Aranda said. "He tells you straightforward and he's very calm."

Specialties close to home

Ghaly, who is board-certified in three specialties — neurosurgery, anesthesiology and pain management — is the medical director of the Rush-Copley Neuroscience Center, which was launched in late 2001. The center specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of brain injuries, tumors, aneurysms, hemorrhages and management of stroke and spine injuries, microscopic diskectomy and endoscopic carpal tunnel release surgery. Ghaly, 43, has been promoting the concept of a community neuroscience center for years. "You have to have service to your patients close to home," he said.

Also chairman of the American Stroke Association for four counties — Will, Kane, Kendall and DuPage — Ghaly has developed a "how-to" packet for physicians to give them guidelines for treating stroke or brain injury patients. "Diabetes and blood pressure have to be controlled to prevent a stroke," he said. And as the Salas family found, family history can be a factor in the probability of having a stroke.

Leslie Barna, a registered nurse and case manager for Ghaly, followed the physician from Silver Cross Hospital in Joliet, where she had worked for 20 years. It was Ghaly's philosophy of patient care that brought her to Rush-Copley. "His ability to look at a patient as a whole was the most incredible thing," she said.

His dedication to working with the families of patients also impressed her. "People ask me, 'Why do you want to involve the families from day zero? Why do you want to share the plan?' " Ghaly said. "The family becomes an active member of the treatment plan. It's patient-empowered care. I embrace that."

Family involvement proved to be a critical factor in Salas' recovery, with his extended family from Aurora and Mexico providing round-the-clock support while he was in the hospital. Ghaly also credits the Salas family's strong faith with his patient's recovery. "The reason he is doing better is because of their faith," Ghaly said. "From the ICU, they have brought religious pictures. They feel this is the normal expectation." In Salas' hospital room, there was a large picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a statue of the Infant of Prague and several statues of Mary adorned with rosary beads. "He's a miracle," Sandra Munoz said of her father. "We're really happy with Dr. Ghaly. A lot of people don't share the same religious beliefs. He feels the same way we do."

One step at a time

Family support was important to Sharon Matheson, a 62-year-old grandmother from Washington state, who was baby-sitting her grandchildren in Naperville. One morning, her husband, Don, couldn't wake her up. The formerly active woman, who had walked between four and five miles a day, had a brain aneurysm and spent 30 days in the intensive care unit at Rush-Copley. Maintaining an active lifestyle was beneficial to Matheson when she began physical therapy. "She's a great success story for us," said Jayne Wallers, nurse case manager for physical therapy. At the time of her discharge, Matheson hadn't completely regained her strength and exhibited some memory loss, but Wallers said that time and a lot of support will help the healing process. "We never promise perfection. We're going to work as hard as we can to get you home and as functional as possible," she said. The hospital staff gave the Mathesons a sendoff with cake, punch and an "I love Rush-Copley" sweatshirt that was signed by all the personnel throughout the hospital, who were responsible for her care. "I think it's astonishing that she's made the progress she's had," Don Matheson said. "The staff is supportive and compassionate. People have gone out of their way to befriend her even after she's gone out of their unit."

Faith is key element

In Ghaly's office, there is a large, framed picture of Jesus and another of Jesus' mother Mary. The doctor is a member of St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church in Burr Ridge and attends services every Sunday. As one of eight children growing up in Egypt, his family endured persecution because of their religious beliefs. "We learn we have to do things 100 times more to be acceptable to the society. You read and study hard," he said.

Ghaly attended Ain Shams University medical school in Cairo, Egypt, graduating with honors in 1981. While completing his internship at the university hospital, he saw stroke patients who were dying and nothing was being done for them. "I wish the time would come that I would be the surgeon to help them and to diagnose and try to help these people," he said. Instead of staying for one month, he stayed for six. The professor of the department advised Ghaly to leave the country because there was no future for him in Egypt.

After his internship, Ghaly said he was sent to a remote village that had no electricity or running water. "I didn't do anything wrong and (it) was just because I was Christian," he said.

Ghaly decided to come to the United States and arrived at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. Because he was reticent in talking about his accomplishments to the people in charge of the large hospital, they weren't initially impressed with the young man. "I told Cook County, let me work for free, watch me, observe. I am really interested in medicine. Sure enough, I stayed three months for free. Within three months, they hired me."

The love of knowledge that was instilled in him by his parents — his father was a teacher of the arts and his mother was self-taught — he passed all three of his board exams for the three specialties on the first try. He's currently writing a book titled "Christianity and the Brain" that will attempt to explain the connection between mind, body and spirit. "The brain is the hidden treasure. You're not only working in the physical, but the spiritual," he said.

Putting the pieces together

Ghaly begins his hospital rounds at 6:30 a.m. The reason he chooses that time of day is so he can talk with nurses in the transition period between the day and night shifts. "I give them the plan for the whole day," he said. "Everyone knows exactly what they should do."

After visiting his patients, depending on the day of the week, he will have a meeting with staff members from throughout the hospital involved in his patients' care. He might teach a class to the residents or see patients in his office. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he performs surgeries that can range from removing a brain tumor to correcting carpal tunnel syndrome toback surgery.

Patricia Alsvig of Plano had just turned 40 years old when she learned she would need surgery. Fourteen days later, she had a malignant tumor removed that was the size of a grapefruit.

On the morning of the surgery, scheduled to last about six hours, Alsvig was carefully positioned on an operating table to ensure that there was no added pressure on the brain or spinal cord while she was immobilized under anesthesia. Any little movement could cause nerve damage. The tumor at the back of her neck was near the area of the brain that controls eyesight, speech, the ability to read, the ability to understand the spoken word and balance. Ghaly had to carefully and completely remove the large tumor without damaging the nerves.

Ghaly used new technology called image-guided surgery that allows the physician to navigate through the brain using real-time imagery that provided a three-dimensional image of the tumor and the brain. Incorporated into the eyepiece is information transmitted from the camera and the computer. In addition to the nurses, doctor's assistant and anesthesiologist, representatives from the company that makes the equipment were on hand to answer any questions or troubleshoot any problems.

A neurophysiology monitoring system recorded the response of nerves in Alsvig's arms, legs and ears. As long as a response was received from the nerves, that meant sensation was intact and the surgery was proceeding well, even though the patient was under anesthesia.

Whenever he reached a critical part of the surgery, Ghaly asked one of the nurses to call the family to let them know the patient's progress. After the surgery was finished and Alsvig was in the recovery room, Ghaly woke her up and called in the eight family members who were anxiously waiting.

His patient, who was referred to the surgeon by another doctor, is grateful for her care. "I can't say enough about Dr. Ghaly; his personal touch for everything. He came in and he had so much hope. When I was looking at it, I wasn't very hopeful at that time. He had a very positive attitude and spirit," she said.

The mother of a 4-year-old and 12-year-old has resumed her previously active lifestyle. "It's kind of a miracle for me," she said. She is going through radiation treatment to make sure all the cancer is gone and will continue to see her neurosurgeon every six weeks. "As far as doing everyday things with my family, I'm back to normal," she said.

Her biggest fear prior to the surgery was that her children would grow up without their mother. "I feel I had the best neurosurgeon in the country with the way he treated me and my family," she said. "He has an aura about him to make you feel like God is with you and you're going to survive and everything is going to be the best."