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Leading Neurosurgeon Likes Challenges and Classic Cars

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A Texas neurosurgeon has made a career at the cutting edge of his field, but when it comes to his other passion-cars-he prefers to stick to the classics.

He describes himself as a competitive individual. And his resume backs that up.

Gavin Britz, MBBCh, MPH, FAANS, is chairman of neurosurgery at Houston Methodist Hospital. He’s recognized as one of the most experienced cerebrovascular surgeons in the US, treating aneurysms using microsurgical and endovascular techniques.

But it’s likely none of those accolades would be forthcoming had Britz not left South Africa in 1989.

“South Africa is a great country, and every country has its needs,” Britz explains. “But I think neurosurgery is not one of those top needs. And I knew all the innovation was in the United States.”

So, after a brief stint in Canada, Britz came to the US permanently in 1992, and has been welcoming the competitive challenges ever since.

Challenging Field

Britz came to Houston Methodist Hospital from Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina, where he was director of the Cerebrovascular Center, as well as associate professor neurosurgery.

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Why neurosurgery? His father had a spinal cord injury when Britz was young, and that exposed him to medicine in general, and neurosurgery in particular at an early age. But he also liked the challenges the field presented; challenges he says are numerous.

“I do skull base and tumor surgeries which are the most competitive and challenging,” Britz says. “But you’re also dealing with people; you’re doing cranial work. People are in life-threatening conditions, receiving devastating diagnoses, and sometimes they’re young people. It’s challenging for the patients, their families, and the surgeons. And it’s challenging on both the physical and the psychological side of things.”

Psychological? Britz says the brain makes us the people we are. If someone has knee replacement surgery or loses a limb, they still have their brain. They still have their soul to be the person they are. They can still speak. They can still connect with their loved ones as a human being. It’s different, he says, if a patient has a tumor on the dominant side of their brain that controls speech and memory.

“As soon as you start losing brain function, you start losing who you are,” he says. “I believe the soul is the brain, not the heart. And when you start losing who you are, that’s the emotionally challenging part for patients.”

A Passion for Collecting

Britz is also a classic sports car collector, an enthusiasm that began as soon as he completed his residency. His collection includes classic Jaguar E-types from 1964 and 1967, as well as a 1968 Ferrari. And he makes no bones about preferring a classic car to a modern day Ferrari.

“It’s the history,” he explains. “When you buy a new car with all the technology, it’s not the same. You can’t smell the oil. You can’t smell the gas.”

Classic cars may be way behind in technology, Britz concedes, but they’re far ahead in nostalgia.

“Some of those cars were hand made in the 1960s and earlier,” he says. “I like new cars, but I love the old cars. It’s the nostalgia of driving a car that was a prime in its time. And I just finished my MBA, so now I have a little more time to spend on my cars.”

And the conditions are prime, too. Britz says living in Houston is a blessing because, other than when it’s raining, he can pretty much drive one of his collector’s cars any time he wants.

How many classic cars does Britz own? He laughs. “I’d better not say.”

Canine Lover

Britz also has an affinity for dogs—Dobermans, in particular. A dog owner his entire life, he currently has 2 Dobermans that he shows in conjunction with a Florida couple who help finish and breed the dogs for him.

“They’re called Velcro dogs because they stick to their owners,” says Britz of Dobermans. “They’re extremely loyal. They’re good watchdogs, but they’re not violent.”

The “violent” element is a misnomer, a stigma attached to Dobermans which Britz says is an unfair label. The manner in which dogs behave, he says, is a result of they are raised.

“My dogs are born, they go into the show circuit, and they meet a lot of humans all the time, so they’re well socialized,” he says. “The problems occur when the dogs are not socialized. They’re abused. When dogs are completely loved from the day they’re born, and they meet lots of people, they look at humans as friends.”

Opening the Door

Britz says the most rewarding aspect of the work he does is the innovation; the ability to do research or perform procedures that haven’t been done before.

“We work with the most recent devices, or help develop those devices, doing research that’s going to change the way medicine and procedures are practiced,” Britz says. “And I think that’s what is nice about it. I’m always trying to learn new techniques, and trying to discover new things. That’s the most rewarding thing about what I do in neurosurgery.”

And, he points out, he would never have had the chance had he not come to the US in 1992.

“I know it sounds terrible, but (in South Africa) I could not do what I’m doing today,” Britz says. “I’ve always believed that to do well in life you need opportunity, and you need the time, the hours. I’ve put in the hours to get where I am in my career, but America has given me the platform and the opportunity to achieve those goals that I guarantee to you I would have achieved nowhere else in the world.”


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