When Brain Surgery Is the Family Business: A Father’s Day Story

Dr. Jeff Ojemann with his dad, Dr. George Ojemann
Dr. Jeff Ojemann with his dad, Dr. George Ojemann.

For Dr. Jeff Ojemann, chief of the Neurosurgery Division and director of epilepsy surgery at Seattle Children’s, neuroscience is not just a passion – it’s the family business. His father, Dr. George Ojemann, was also a neurosurgeon and a national pioneer in the treatment of epilepsy.

As we near Father’s Day, we asked Ojemann about his dad and how their relationship influenced his career choice.

How many members of your family have worked in neuroscience?

My father began his career as a neurosurgeon and researcher specializing in epilepsy at the University of Washington Medical Center in 1966. He would later become one of the first surgeons in the United States to attempt to treat epilepsy with neurosurgery.

During his nearly 40 years as a neurosurgeon, my dad held many prestigious positions. He was a member of the Advisory Council of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and president of the American Academy of Neurological Surgery. He also served as director of the Washington Epilepsy Center at Harborview and has authored or co-authored over 300 articles in the neurologic and neurosurgical literature.

Dad retired from clinical practice in 2005. He is now 79 years old and professor emeritus in the Department of Neurological Surgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He continues to study the neurobiology of human cognition, specifically focusing on language and memory.

My paternal grandfather was a professor of child psychiatry at the University of Iowa before World War II. Back then, people were first starting to view the brain as something that could be studied scientifically. He was trying to understand the neurological processes behind different diseases.

Today, my brother, Steve, and I are both neurosurgeons. My brother currently works at the University of Colorado.

How did you feel about your father’s career when you were a child?

While I was growing up, I remember Dad talking enthusiastically about his work. Although I did not understand everything about his profession, I always knew he worked hard and that the work he was doing was important and interesting.

Did you always want to follow in his footsteps?

Ojemann (front left) in 1975 with his dad and siblings. Ojemann's sister, Elizabeth-Ann, is now an emergency medicine physician, and his brother, Steve, is a neurosurgeon.
Ojemann (front left) in 1975 with his dad and siblings. Ojemann’s sister, Elizabeth-Ann, is now an emergency medicine physician, and his brother, Steve, is a neurosurgeon.

I was always aware of neurosurgery and I knew surgery for epilepsy had a remarkable way of helping people. Still, I wasn’t always sure I wanted to go into medicine. As an undergrad, I was a physics major, mostly studying atmospheric science and quantum physics.

Once I decided to go to medical school, the specialties around the brain and behavior were most interesting to me. But even when I began to focus on neuroscience, I was not inclined to enter the same profession as my dad. I had a pretty weak rebellion, in which I thought I might be a psychiatrist or a vascular neurosurgeon.

But I was always interested in understanding how the brain works. When the patient had a pressing need, such as a blood clot in the brain or a spine fracture, that was very appealing to me. I wanted to be able to identify a problem and intervene.

Over time, I explored a lot of options, but nothing held a candle to neurosurgery.

Did your dad help you during medical school or your residency?

My medical education certainly impacted our personal relationship. The more I learned, the more I enjoyed having conversations with him that had not been possible previously. I would share my clinical observations and we would compare cases. Still, I intentionally completed my residency far from where he worked, so I would not get too much direct help from him.

I joined Seattle Children’s and the University of Washington in 2003, but we were only on faculty together for two years before he retired.

Why did you decide to focus on pediatric neurosurgery, and how did you end up at Seattle Children’s?

Working with children is compelling; everyone at Seattle Children’s knows that. When you make a difference in a child’s health, it can change things for an entire lifetime. To work with families and children with neurologic problems in the intellectually creative environment of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest is as good as it gets!

Do you ever turn to him for clinical advice?

Absolutely – especially when I am treating a patient with a rare condition. It’s great to have someone who’s just a phone call away with 40 years of experience.

What’s more, he’s had research funding from the National Institutes of Health most of his career, so it’s great to talk about balancing the challenges of research and a clinical practice.

How are you and your dad similar or different, professionally?

Ojemann (left) with his brother, Steve, at a neurosurgery meeting this month
Ojemann (left) with his brother, Steve, at a neurosurgery meeting this month.

While we work in the same field, our careers have spanned very different eras. Our profession has become much more difficult to do in isolation. I rely on large teams to operate complicated technologies, both clinically and in research. Additionally, the regulatory burdens are a lot greater for surgery or research, especially in clinical research where there are a lot more administrative steps than 40 years ago.

But despite working in very different times, my dad and I are similar in that we both have an interest and obligation to learn as much about the brain as possible, and our research has reflected that. We also take responsibility for our patient outcomes, no matter how big our team is.

How would you describe your dad personally? What qualities do you share?

He has always been very good at putting family first, despite the demands of his career. He takes his work seriously. He’s not a jokester, but he’s very friendly and kind. Those are the qualities I try to emulate most.

Do you have kids?

I have three boys – a 16-year-old and 10-year-old twins.

Would you like them to be neurosurgeons?

They like science, and I have no reluctance about sharing what’s exciting about this field with them. But they will have to choose their professions on their own. I hope they have careers that are meaningful and satisfying, whatever they may be. Still, I won’t be disappointed if one of them decides to be a neurosurgeon, too.