September 1, 2016

Chance to help others drives neurosurgeon Thompson

The tears Reid Thompson, M.D., shed one day as a medical student left an indelible mark.

The tears Reid Thompson, M.D., shed one day as a medical student left an indelible mark.
Three decades later, the William F. Meacham Professor of Neurological Surgery often shares the story behind those tears with residents.

For neurosurgeon Reid Thompson, M.D., interacting with patients at their most vulnerable times is a privilege. (photo by Susan Urmy)
For neurosurgeon Reid Thompson, M.D., interacting with patients at their most vulnerable times is a privilege. (photo by Susan Urmy)

He was at The Johns Hopkins Hospital shadowing a doctor, one of the world’s foremost breast cancer oncologists, who had just given a terse diagnosis to a woman. She was Thompson’s first patient on his internal medicine rotation.

“You have cancer and we need a tissue sample,” the doctor said, leaving Thompson in the room with her. She burst into tears. So did he.

“What I realized at that moment was nothing that I had studied in the first two years of medical school — all the biochemical pathways and all the various courses in pathology and pathophysiology — nothing had prepared me for that moment.”

The experience was so unsettling he sought guidance from his course director.

“Reid, there are two types of physicians in medicine,” Thompson recalls his professor telling him. “There are physicians who are interested in diseases that people happen to have. Then there are physicians who are interested in people who happen to have those diseases. I think you have figured out who you are, but it is important that you realize there is room in medicine for both.”

Not believing the two approaches had to be mutually exclusive, he aspired to be both types of doctor.

“Equally important, I would say, to honing your skill and your craft as a surgeon is your ability to hone your skill and your craft to communicate with patients,” said Thompson, chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Growing up on the other side of the world from Nashville, he had no idea he would end up at Vanderbilt. Thompson spent his teenage years in Indonesia, where his father, a plant geneticist and university professor, was working.

He learned to speak Indonesian and to play the gamelan musical instruments. He came back to the United States to attend undergraduate school at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), intending to pursue an academic career in molecular biology. A philosophy class changed those plans.

“A mentor of mine crystalized something I hadn’t quite put together,” Thompson said. “She said ‘You are really interested in the brain, aren’t you?’ I said ‘Yes.’ This was before there was such a thing as a neuroscience major. It didn’t exist when I was in college.”

The professor arranged for him to work in a neurochemistry lab at Johns Hopkins University while he was still an undergraduate at UMBC. He worked with scientists to discover a neurotransmitter and how it was metabolized. That experience led him toward neurosurgery.

e was admitted to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he met his wife, Lorraine Ware, M.D., when they were both residents. They were living and working in California when they were offered positions at Vanderbilt in 2002. Ware is a pulmonologist who has developed a research program focused on acute lung injury, a clinical syndrome of respiratory failure.

“When my wife and I moved here, we didn’t know anyone,” Thompson said. “We didn’t have any connection to the South. Our family was out West. It was always our plan to move out West and to live out West after Baltimore. So 14 years ago, we packed the car and our small family and headed east. Really since day one, I’ve known this was home.”

At that time, they had one son. Now, they have two sons and a daughter. In his spare time, Thompson enjoys coaching youth baseball.

“I won’t say I’m perfect as a father, but I have tried hard to get home every night for dinner,” he said. “You make time for the things that are important to you.”

Thompson heads a neurosurgery department nationally recognized for its specialty programs. His office is in what was once the neurosurgery operating room in the 1925 Vanderbilt Hospital portion of Medical Center North.

“I know what they were doing in the 1940s and 1950s in here,” he said. “It was very rudimentary. Imagine what’s going to be happening in a neurosurgical operating room in the future. It won’t even look like we’re in an operating room. It’s a very exciting time right now to be in neuroscience and neurosurgery. Here at Vanderbilt, we have leaders who are involved in brain mapping and understanding connectivity in the brain.”

Thompson said he interacts every working day with incredibly good and supportive people.

“That includes patients who are just unbelievably grateful,” he said. “Neurosurgery is very humbling. It ought to be humbling because you have the privilege of interacting with people at very vulnerable times.”