Dr. Abdullan pioneered neurosurgery in county

September 27, 2007|By GLORIA DAHLHAMER

Editor's note: This is one in an occasional series of profiles of area residents who share the stories of their lives and experiences.

He's called the grandfather of neurosurgery in Washington County, and rightly so. When Dr. Adel Abdullah came to Hagerstown, he was one of a kind. There were no neurosurgeons in this area outside metropolitan Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

In fact, the good doctor says, his practice stretched all the way to Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania and Morgantown in West Virginia. For close to 20 years, he says, "I was it."

Now retired, the 80-year-old surgeon can look back over a 40-year career, during which there were amazing advances in the neurosurgical field.


Some of those advances were of his own making, including the design and development of several surgical instruments for use on the operating table.

One such device, designed for use in sterotactic surgery, was employed in the early surgical treatment of Parkinson's disease.

"Dr. Ab" came to Hagerstown in 1957 via Cairo, Cleveland and Los Angeles. A native of Cairo, Egypt, he earned his M.D. degree at Cairo University Medical School and interned at Cairo University Hospital.

He came to the U.S. to train at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

It was a daunting adventure for a young doctor, "but when you're young you adapt quickly," he said with a shrug.

After completing his residency at Cleveland, he was awarded a two-year research fellowship by the National Paraplegia Foundation at the University of California Medical School in Los Angeles.

Two years in Los Angeles was enough, he says. "My wife and I couldn't take the smog and the hordes of people coming into the area." They wanted typical small-town America.

Fortunately, he says, one of his friends at UCLA was a native of Winchester, Va.

"He advised us to head East," Abdullah says, "and we found Hagerstown. It was a small town, a friendly town, and a nice place to raise children."

He hung out his shingle on North Potomac Street, joined the staff at Washington County Hospital and never looked back.

Over the next 40 years, he performed more than 25,000 neurosurgical procedures.

"There was a vast backlog of neurosurgical patients when I came here," he recalls.

"Patients had gone untreated for a long period and were in so much pain. I saw people with brain tumors the size of a grapefruit. Now we can diagnose tumors the size of a pea."

Abdullah organized and set up the first neurosurgical unit at Washington County Hospital. It was a formidable task.

"In those days, you bought your own equipment," he says, "and I had to buy my own specialized instruments."

In addition, he had to introduce the surgical nurses, anesthetists and floor nurses to new instruments, new procedures and new methods of bedside care.

"I introduced 20 new operations during the first year," he says.

His first surgical patient was a man who underwent a craniotomy, or surgical opening of the skull. Other patients and procedures soon followed. "As we developed service here, this became a drawing area. The flow of patients ... the volume became so heavy," he says, he soon acquired two partners, Dr. Edward Byrd and Dr. Jack Carey.

Now there are four neurosurgeons in Hagerstown, and between 22 and 24 neurologists and neurosurgeons serving the same area Abdullah once served alone.

He says the neurosurgical unit at the hospital developed over a 12-year period. In that period, he saw advances in patient care and in the development of the local hospital's intensive care unit.

In the early years, when neurosurgery was making its biggest advances, he says, he had to train for new procedures including microscopic and endoscopic surgery. Now, he says, many procedures employ image monitoring, "very sophisticated."

Today, he adds, there are new fields of surgery with many subspecialties within the department of neurosurgery. In addition, there are many neurosurgery centers outside the hospital, including the new center on Western Maryland Parkway, where a plaque attesting to his pioneering efforts in Washington County is on display.

According to an article in the March-April 1999 edition of the Washington County Medical Society's bi-monthly newsletter, the doctor "found the time and energy to write well over a dozen research papers for publication in widely circulated medical journals. Two such articles ... were selected for publication in the Neurosurgical Yearbook. His classic treatise on the management of extreme-lateral disc herniation triggered the publication of over 70 papers in the neurosurgical literature."

Many of his articles were published in the Journal of Neurosurgery, the neurosurgeon's bible. He credits his office manager and "right arm" of 40 years, Geraldine Reid, for much of his success in the publishing field.

He still keeps his hand in. Today he does a lot of research for the Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md., and has written a monograph about a Civil War-era surgeon which he plans to expand into a book.

"Oh, I keep busy," he says. "I still have a lot of correspondence with my colleagues and old buddies."

An avid outdoorsman, "Ab" spends time on the golf course and exercising his green thumb at his home on Fountain Head Road. In the summers, he lends his green thumb efforts to the Northern Avenue roadside park developed by Long Meadow Rotary Club.

And then, there's extended travel with his wife to visit their four children and 11 grandchildren.

This year will mark the 50th anniversary of the introduction of neurosurgery to Washington County.

"Maybe I should do something about that," he muses.

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