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A doctor's tell-all of neurosurgery in times of COVID-19

Ring enhancing lesion

My teachers implanted the principle in my brain that the patient is and always will be the supreme priority for a doctor, no matter how adverse the situation

ByDr. Sonal Gupta

May 30, 2020 (IANSlife) As many countries around the world, including our own, fight the COVID 19 pandemic, the medical profession, which is at the forefront of this fight, has suffered a rude awakening.

As doctors, our efforts and thoughts are so focused on solving this problem, that other ailments have slipped down the priority list. And yet, as is usual in the professional life of a Neurosurgeon patentees with brain strokes, head injuries (despite the lockdown), brain tumors and and of course infections requiring emergency surgical intervention have to keep come in. 

Unavoidable and emergency neurosurgical procedures are carried out without waiting for the COVID-19 test in a dedicated and isolated environment where the medical staff members are required to wear complete Personal Protection Equipment kit (PPE) at all times.




Due to the exponential rise in Corona cases, as a thumb rule, all new admissions are treated as asymptomatic carriers. Non-emergency surgical procedures are carried out only after the COVID 19 test is found to be negative. This is for the safety of the patient, since if the Covid test is positive, surgical risk is higher. Even if the first test is negative, the surgical team members are required to wear the complete PPE kit due to the added risk of aerosol born transmission of the disease. While there is no other option other than emergency surgery in some cases, others can be treated conservatively while ensuring there is no risk to the patient’s wellbeing. 

Tracker showing exact point of entry
Tracker showing exact point of entry


I recently had a chance to treat a 26-year-old male patient who posed the same dilemma of conservative versus aggressive treatment with both having an equal chance of failure. 

The patient had a sudden onset difficulty in speaking for 2 days. The MRI showed a ring-enhancing lesion in the left brain where the speech center is located. Differential diagnosis included a pus collection called abscess and a remote possibility of cancer. An abscess can be formed due to TB or any other type of brain infection and the treatment would vary accordingly. If the patient is not considered for the aggressive approach of surgery, I would have to consider the following two conservative approaches along with their aftereffects:

  • If the patient is put on heavy antibiotics considering a non-TB infection, the patient may still end up having progression of the disease if it would be TB infection and also bear side effects of heavy antibiotics. 
  • If the patient empirically started on TB treatment, one would repeat the MRI only after 4-6 weeks to monitor the effects of the treatment, during which time if the treatment is incorrect, the abscess can grow fourfold.  


Pre op registration for image guided surgery
Pre op registration for image guided surgery                            


With the Hippocratic oath in my heart, the thought of the risk of disease progression constantly in my head, and the life of this young man in my hands, I decided to be aggressive and perform the surgical procedure. Stereotactic drainage of the abscess was the less favored option since it would require the patient to be transferred to the CT scan facility and back to the OT after fixing the frame on the patient, thereby risking exposure of multiple medical workers to a potentially asymptomatic COVID carrier. 

Minimally invasive image-guided neurosurgery is the option I chose for the patient. This advanced modality gives a precise entry point to tap the abscess. Surgery was performed taking adequate precautions against potential infections. An incision of 3-4 inches was made at the designated position and 7-10 ml of the thick abscess was obtained area and sent for study. Within 24 hours’ diagnosis of TB was confirmed.  


 Ring enhancing lesion
 Ring enhancing lesion


It was a great relief to get an exact diagnosis and not having to treat the ailment empirically. The first MRI indicated a strong probability of a pyogenic infection which might or might not have been due to TB. The patient would have received broad-spectrum antibiotics which would not have helped him but would have affected his kidneys adversely.  


My teachers implanted the principle in my brain that the patient is and always will be the supreme priority for a doctor, no matter how adverse the situation. See the thing is that the situation is unwarranted. It can be frightening but I am not scared. I have a family to return to every evening. Yet I am not scared. You might wonder why; the truth is as a doctor I am it is my duty to provide medical aid wherever it is required.


In coronavirus times, we must not forget that there are medical emergencies which require our attention. There are people suffering from several ailments which do require them to go to the doctors and get treated. There are people with symptoms of fatal diseases which if not picked up early on can result in problems and irreversible damage. Whenever there was risk of infection I self-isolated. However, I did not give up on my duty. I realize now more than ever how much my patients need me and I am there for them. They are my greatest motivator and strength during this time. 


Data from around the world has shown that more than five neurosurgeons have succumbed to the Coronavirus as a result of infections picked up during surgical procedures, this is apart from fatalities in other medical disciplines. Safety for one’s own life, the most basic of human tendencies, doesn't take precedence in these unprecedented time. The surgeon must take a pragmatic view of the situation and deal with each case based on its merits and risks involved.

The author Dr. Sonal Gupta is Director, Fortis Hospital, Shalimar Bagh, Neuro Spine Surgery

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