What makes a surgeon?
In Dr. Walker Robinson's case, tragedy.
One March night more than 30 years ago his future was set in motion by an unlikely event: the death of his brother.
It wasn't being mugged and stabbed that killed 27-year-old Edward Robinson Jr. though; it was waiting hours to be seen in a hospital emergency room.
"It's always bugged me," explains Dr. Robinson, who was 11 at the time. "He had a survivable injury."
Today when the pediatric neurosurgeon at the University of Maryland Medical Center successfully races against the clock to stop a child's head from bleeding or to remove a tumor from the brain, he still thinks of Edward and of one family being spared what his wasn't.
"When you do that," he says quietly, "it makes you feel very good."
What has also made him feel good is taking part in the creation of the new University of Maryland Cranial/Facial Center, which opened recently with Dr. Robinson as co-director. The first of its kind in the state, it houses 15 specialties -- from plastic surgery to social work to speech therapy -- to give patients with birth defects, disfiguring diseases and head trauma more comprehensive treatment.
For him, the new responsibility -- along with his role as acting head of neurological surgery -- amounts to 80-hour workweeks, endless paperwork and days like this one, when oatmeal cookies and Rolaids often suffice for lunch.
But if there are drawbacks, they pale compared to the rewards. "You see somebody come in near death and then bring them back, and they walk and talk and get out of here, that's a real nice feeling," says Dr. Robinson, 49.
The payoff is particularly great when he's working with a youngster. "Potentially you're giving that child 70, 80 years or more. Years that he might not have without you. That's not a bad investment," he says.
There's something of the daredevil in Walker Robinson. He does, after all, operate on brains smaller than tennis balls. He's known as a pioneer in the use of lasers and radioactive seeds to treat cancerous brain tumors. Then there's his personal life: A former Green Beret, he used to spend his spare time sky diving, rappelling and scuba diving before the life insurance premiums got too high.
"You have to be sort of a daredevil to be in this field," explains Dr. Ben Carson, the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "You're chomping on people's brains. You don't do that if you're faint of heart."
But others see Dr. Robinson's most daring feat as breaking through racial barriers many years ago to become the first black neurosurgeon in Maryland.
"He's a hero to minorities," says Dr. Yuji Numaguchi, the director of neuro-radiology at the hospital.
Dr. Robinson prefers to play down the distinction. "Being the first wasn't as important as being good," he says. "The hardest thing was for people to accept the notion. It was like: 'I didn't think [a black man] could do that.' "
At times, he has struggled with parents who declined treatment for their children because he was black. At least once, he was able to exact a playful revenge when they requested the case be transferred to Hopkins and wound up seeing Dr. Ben Carson, who is also black.
The subject of Dr. Carson is a touchy one for Dr. Robinson. After separating West German Siamese twins joined at the head, an accomplishment that captured the world's attention, Dr. Carson became a celebrity and wrote his autobiography.
Dr. Robinson hesitates to discuss whether he feels overshadowed by his colleague at Hopkins.
"Ben is a very good surgeon," he says, choosing his words as carefully as he might the right surgical instrument. "He was at the right time at the right place and he pulled it off."
As he speaks, his long, slender fingers are constantly in motion, playing with various objects -- a pen, a candy dispenser, a small stuffed bear -- on his desk. Down-to-earth and easygoing, he makes jokes and quotes Sherlock Holmes to illustrate his points.
Dr. Daniele Rigamonti came to the hospital four years ago specifically to work with Dr. Robinson. "He's a skilled neurosurgeon . . . and a genuinely nice guy," says the neurosurgeon. "There's never a problem working with him. He's not arrogant or pretentious."
After 15 years as a surgeon, Dr. Robinson has learned to deftly blend humanity with professionalism. "You try not to be so used to the risks that when you have a bad outcome it doesn't matter to you," he says.
Walking down the hall of the pediatric unit, he peeks into rooms where there have been "good outcomes." He waves, smiles and teases children on the long road to recovery.
A teen-ager whose "wildly malignant" tumor was removed during 10 hours of surgery is being released today. She walks from her room to hug him goodbye.
"When I see these kids, I see my own," explains Dr. Robinson, a father of two. "The primary decision process that I use is: Would I want this for my own children? Would I do this study on [my daughter] Kimberly? This surgery on [my son] Walker?"