Now, a leader in spinal deformity surgery and chief of spinal surgery as well as surgeon-in-chief of The Spine Hospital at New York-Presbyterian/Allen Hospital at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, Lenke credits his alma mater for his stellar career in academic medicine. It was one he sought because of the group mentality of working as a team, the energizing environment of being around all levels of medical trainees and having the opportunity to practice medicine and surgery and teach at the same time.
“My years at Northwestern set me up to realize the best care was being done at academic medical centers because they teach the next generation of physicians and surgeons,” he says. “Northwestern led me on a pathway of surgery and a lifelong commitment to research and education.”
Lenke initially considered specializing in cardiothoracic surgery, but after witnessing the diversity of orthopaedic surgery specializations during his medical school clerkships, he gravitated toward the challenges of spinal surgery.
After receiving his medical degree from Northwestern, Lenke completed his internship and residency training in orthopaedic surgery at Barnes-Jewish Hospital/Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. While there, he also completed a fellowship in pediatric and adult orthopaedic spinal surgery and stayed on staff, rising from the ranks of assistant professor to being named the Jerome J. Gilden Distinguished Professor in less than 10 years.
As a spinal deformity specialist, Lenke treats people with conditions including scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine as seen from the front; kyphosis, an exaggerated curvature of the spine as viewed from the side; and spondylolisthesis, displacement of one vertebra on the next, among others. His current practice includes treating some of the most complex spinal deformity patients from around the country and world who come to New York for their care.
“The most exciting thing about my work is making a huge difference in a person’s life. It’s a gratifying and quite humbling experience to give someone with a crippling spinal deformity a more normal appearance and improve their heart and lung function, in addition to giving them both a longer life expectancy and a better outlook on life.”
The Big Apple
After 29 years at Washington University-St. Louis creating spine programs and leading research advances in spine surgery, Lenke and two of his colleagues, Dan Riew, MD and Ron Lehman, MD, decided to share their expertise on a bigger stage. Last year they established the first spine hospital in Manhattan in New York City.
Lenke and his team have created a unique program that solely focuses on adult and children having and recovering from spinal surgery. While most surgeons performing spinal surgery have been trained in orthopaedics or neurosurgery, Lenke hopes the hospital will lead the way in training specialists in spinal surgery as a distinct discipline on its own. It will combine the best from the disciplines of both orthopaedic and neurological spinal surgery.
At the hospital, everything from the operating rooms to the allied health profession workers (nurses, physical and occupational therapists, social workers, nutritionists) are specialized for spinal surgery. The team also takes a multipronged approach to spine care, including surgical and non-surgical options for treating patients.
“This new chapter in New York is very exciting,” says Lenke. “The early patient outcomes have been extremely high due to the focus of our facility and personnel on spinal surgery patients exclusively.”
Lenke has published nearly 400 peer-reviewed research manuscripts and continues to conduct research in spinal deformity surgery and patient safety. Working to make spinal surgeries safer, he has investigated methods to improve pulmonary function and breathing capacity following surgery and doing a better job of monitoring the upper and lower extremity neurological function during these very long operations, many taking more than eight to 10 hours.
He also has found that using multidisciplinary teams and thorough preparation leads to better patient outcomes — all information he wants to share. “By doing research and optimizing your own surgeries, you make yourself a better surgeon,” he says, “but by publishing research papers and presenting information at our educational meetings, you are helping other surgeons do a better and safer job for their patients. This exponentially increases the impact that I can have on optimizing patient care.”
One of Lenke’s proudest moments came when he was elected president of the Scoliosis Research Society, the oldest spine society in the world with the mission to advance the care of patients with spinal deformity globally. The youngest president to be elected, Lenke served from 2010 to 2011. He also chaired a task force that led to the development of a new journal, Spine Deformity, which launched in January 2013. Says Lenke, “To be elected by my peers for this prestigious leadership role is the highlight of my career thus far.”
Lenke also was honored with the North American Spine Society’s Leon Wiltse Award in 2013 for excellence in leadership and/or clinical research in spine care. “It was very gratifying and meaningful to receive this award,” he says. “Dr. Wiltse was one of the great legends in spine care and research.”
Yet for all of his accomplishments, Lenke continues to learn the most from his patients.
“No matter how tough a time I’m having, it’s hard to feel sorry for yourself when you have patients in the ICU,” he says. “I’ve been pretty lucky. I’ve had a good life and a great family.”