Vanderbilt neurosurgeon Jay Wellons reflects on a life dedicated to healing | Books







Everything that moves us

When an editor at Random House read Jay Wellons’ 2020 essay in New York Times about the extraordinary effort to rescue a critically injured young girl, he was so moved by the story that he came in contact with Wellons, who is head of pediatric neurosurgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The resulting book, Everything that moves us: A pediatric neurosurgeon, his young patients and their stories of grace and resilienceis a compelling account of the doctor’s life and career.

The stakes are often high in Wellons’ medical field, and his stories capture the serious realities of his work. In “Luke’s Jump,” a 12-year-old boy gets a head injury in a sudden accumulation during a bike race. The father is quick to arrive at his son’s side, tie him up in his arms and get him to a hospital. In the waiting room, while Wellons describes the procedure he is to perform, he looks down at his father’s shoes. “There, a little higher, on the cuff of his blue jeans and tumbled down over his socks, I could see a vaguely familiar grayish color among blood that had penetrated his clothes. It was brain substance. His own son’s brain means something. Mixed with blood and hair and dirt and grass, right there on his person. ” It is then that Wellons, early in his career as a surgeon at this point, realizes the distinction between the urgent, adrenaline-fueled excitement of operating on a body and the sheer responsibility of being responsible for the survival of someone’s child.

His passion for healing does not make him infallible. In “Rubber Bands”, he treats a little girl named Cheyenne, who suffers from a subdural empyema – an infection along the surface of the brain. The operation is going well and Cheyenne is on the road to recovery. It is only several months later that Wellons discovers that he left two rubber bands, instruments used to secure scalp tissue that has been cut and folded back out of the way, inside the Cheyenne brain. When he informs Cheyenne and her mother about his mistake, Cheyenne’s mother says, “My baby is here because of what you did that day.… I do not care if you left your car keys up there, Dr. Wellons.” Her gratitude is not unique, many patients have been so grateful for Wellons’ life-changing surgery that they have kept in touch with him over the years, and have often sent pictures or postcards with life updates.

All that Moves Os does not focus exclusively on medical drama on life and death. There are also more cheerful personal memories. In “Family Charades”, Wellons describes a Christmas surprise that has gone awry:

Years before I was born, when my sisters, Eve and Sarah, were eight and four years old and lived with my parents in Richmond, Virginia, our father brought home a new color TV for Christmas. A huge thing, as deep as it was wide, with a knob for twelve channels. I imagine the weight of it is almost overbearing. After persuading a workmate to help and then struggling to bring it in one afternoon while the girls were away, Dad found it fit nicely under a table near the farthest corner of the cave. The floor-length tablecloth, he thought, would be all it took to complete the camouflage in the three weeks before Christmas.

Wellons’ father did not know that the table was a favorite hiding place for Sarah, who soon bumped into it as she crawled under the table. What follows is a double family deception from Wellons’ mother, which obscures the fact that the girls watch television every day while dad is away, training them in how to behave in surprise on Christmas morning. Dad eventually found out the truth, but by then the story had rounded up the large family.

In graceful, direct prose, Wellons recounts his experiences as a son, father, surgeon, friend, and endless medical student, sharing some of the most intimate moments of both his personal and professional life. He gladly admits mistakes he has made over the years, and he admits to having to work with him home in the form of excessive worry about his own children and the sudden accidents that could bring them to an operating table. Everything that moves us is the story of a dedicated surgeon, told with honesty and humility.

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