What makes a surgeon?
In Dr. Walker Robinson's case, tragedy.
One March night more than 30 years ago his future was set in motion by an unlikely event: the death of his brother.
It wasn't being mugged and stabbed that killed 27-year-old Edward Robinson Jr. though; it was waiting hours to be seen in a hospital emergency room.
"It's always bugged me," explains Dr. Robinson, who was 11 at the time. "He had a survivable injury."
Today when the pediatric neurosurgeon at the University of Maryland Medical Center successfully races against the clock to stop a child's head from bleeding or to remove a tumor from the brain, he still thinks of Edward and of one family being spared what his wasn't.
"When you do that," he says quietly, "it makes you feel very good."
What has also made him feel good is taking part in the creation of the new University of Maryland Cranial/Facial Center, which opened recently with Dr. Robinson as co-director. The first of its kind in the state, it houses 15 specialties -- from plastic surgery to social work to speech therapy -- to give patients with birth defects, disfiguring diseases and head trauma more comprehensive treatment.
For him, the new responsibility -- along with his role as acting head of neurological surgery -- amounts to 80-hour workweeks, endless paperwork and days like this one, when oatmeal cookies and Rolaids often suffice for lunch.
But if there are drawbacks, they pale compared to the rewards. "You see somebody come in near death and then bring them back, and they walk and talk and get out of here, that's a real nice feeling," says Dr. Robinson, 49.
The payoff is particularly great when he's working with a youngster. "Potentially you're giving that child 70, 80 years or more. Years that he might not have without you. That's not a bad investment," he says.
There's something of the daredevil in Walker Robinson. He does, after all, operate on brains smaller than tennis balls. He's known as a pioneer in the use of lasers and radioactive seeds to treat cancerous brain tumors. Then there's his personal life: A former Green Beret, he used to spend his spare time sky diving, rappelling and scuba diving before the life insurance premiums got too high.
"You have to be sort of a daredevil to be in this field," explains Dr. Ben Carson, the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "You're chomping on people's brains. You don't do that if you're faint of heart."
But others see Dr. Robinson's most daring feat as breaking through racial barriers many years ago to become the first black neurosurgeon in Maryland.
"He's a hero to minorities," says Dr. Yuji Numaguchi, the director of neuro-radiology at the hospital.
Dr. Robinson prefers to play down the distinction. "Being the first wasn't as important as being good," he says. "The hardest thing was for people to accept the notion. It was like: 'I didn't think [a black man] could do that.' "
At times, he has struggled with parents who declined treatment for their children because he was black. At least once, he was able to exact a playful revenge when they requested the case be transferred to Hopkins and wound up seeing Dr. Ben Carson, who is also black.
The subject of Dr. Carson is a touchy one for Dr. Robinson. After separating West German Siamese twins joined at the head, an accomplishment that captured the world's attention, Dr. Carson became a celebrity and wrote his autobiography.
Dr. Robinson hesitates to discuss whether he feels overshadowed by his colleague at Hopkins.
"Ben is a very good surgeon," he says, choosing his words as carefully as he might the right surgical instrument. "He was at the right time at the right place and he pulled it off."
As he speaks, his long, slender fingers are constantly in motion, playing with various objects -- a pen, a candy dispenser, a small stuffed bear -- on his desk. Down-to-earth and easygoing, he makes jokes and quotes Sherlock Holmes to illustrate his points.
Dr. Daniele Rigamonti came to the hospital four years ago specifically to work with Dr. Robinson. "He's a skilled neurosurgeon . . . and a genuinely nice guy," says the neurosurgeon. "There's never a problem working with him. He's not arrogant or pretentious."
After 15 years as a surgeon, Dr. Robinson has learned to deftly blend humanity with professionalism. "You try not to be so used to the risks that when you have a bad outcome it doesn't matter to you," he says.
Walking down the hall of the pediatric unit, he peeks into rooms where there have been "good outcomes." He waves, smiles and teases children on the long road to recovery.
A teen-ager whose "wildly malignant" tumor was removed during 10 hours of surgery is being released today. She walks from her room to hug him goodbye.
"When I see these kids, I see my own," explains Dr. Robinson, a father of two. "The primary decision process that I use is: Would I want this for my own children? Would I do this study on [my daughter] Kimberly? This surgery on [my son] Walker?"
For him, there is no longer fear, simply concern, when he operates. "If you're a surgeon, the operating room is where you want to be. It's like if you're a boxer, you want to be in the ring," he says.
A music buff, he recently bought a boom box so he could hear classical music during surgery. While he enjoys Mozart, the residents frequently ask for rap music, a request he generally denies.
"You can't do brain surgery to MC Hammer," he says.
Medicine actually turned out to be the third career for the East Baltimore native. The son of a barber and a domestic, he was the youngest of five, raised in a family that put a premium on education. As a student at Polytechnic Institute, he earned the nickname "Doc" because of his love of science. But after graduating from Morgan State University in 1962 with a chemistry degree, he joined the army and was stationed in Germany.
"I had my own helicopter and aides," he recalls. "At age 22, I figured this was going to be real nice."
The idea of becoming a doctor, however, continued to intrigue him. He applied and was accepted at the University of Maryland Medical School, but because of Army obligations missed the deadline to register for classes.
A lucrative career in C&P; Telephone's management training program followed. It brought raises every six months, with which he bought a powder-blue convertible.
But in 1966, he decided to give med school one last try. He was accepted at Maryland and began studying to become an obstetrician. Thanks to a computer glitch, he was the only one of 105 students to get assigned an elective in neurosurgery.
After he heard about the round-the-clock shift, he tried to switcelectives.
His attitude changed, however, when he observed brain surgery for the first time. "I was all elbows. I had to see and I had to do stuff. . . . Then they moved this last piece of bone and blood went everywhere. I had never seen this much blood before. It looked like Niagara. [The doctors] said they saw me do the moonwalk long before Michael Jackson."
Dr. Robinson was hooked.
"It wasn't just the surgery. It was the idea that there are all the bits and pieces of the body that make you who you are," he says.
After graduating at the head of his class in 1970, he had a five-year residency at the hospital, where he decided to specialize in pediatric neurosurgery, and learned firsthand about the perceptions -- or misperceptions -- of the field.
"It was a standard joke when we were residents that neurosurgery was where all 'the vegetables' were," he says. "A lot of people still have that idea that once the brain is injured there's no hope. . . . That bothers me because it's wrong. People walk out of the hospital now who used not to survive."
To meet the demands of his grueling profession, he has often had to sacrifice time with his family. He advises residents today to fight to find room for both. He and his wife, Mae, a systems analyst, have been married 25 years, thanks in large part to her patience and understanding, he says. The couple, who live in Lochearn, have just about given up on buying season tickets to cultural events such as those given by Center Stage or the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
"I usually fell asleep in the symphony," he says. "The '1812 Overture' would be coming on, and I'd be making more noise than the BSO."
Neither of their two children -- Kimberly, 17, who will be a freshman at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., this fall, nor Walker Jr., 15, a student at Friends School -- has expressed an interest in medicine.
"But I figure I haven't lost them completely," Dr. Robinson says with a chuckle. "They're still young."
THE ROBINSON FILE
Born: Oct. 14, 1941; East Baltimore.
Occupation: Pediatric neurosurgeon and acting head of neurological surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Education: Bachelor's degree in chemistry, Morgan State University, 1962; Valedictorian, University of Maryland Medical School, 1970.
Marital Status: Married since 1966 to Mae, a systems analyst.
Children: Kimberly, 17; Walker Jr., 15.
Current home: Lochearn.
Greatest accomplishment: My two kids.