PEORIA -- The 4-year-old girl who died on Christmas Eve 1961 still brings Dr. Patrick Elwood to tears.
Sitting in the living room of his Peoria Heights home recently, Elwood, 86, was unable to finish telling the story. It is one of many patient stories Elwood included in his new book, "A life in Neurosurgery."
"She had a common childhood malignant brain tumor," said Elwood. "She had been vomiting for a week when her parents brought her in."
Elwood removed the tumor and the child recovered after radiation, but at that time a diagnosis of medulloblastoma was a death sentence. A year later her symptoms returned and she deteriorated quickly. She had slipped into a coma by the time Elwood visited to the family's Averyville home on Christmas Eve. Leaving the home beneath a full moon on the cold, crisp night, Elwood was overwhelmed with sadness. She was the first child he diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor after setting up his Peoria practice 58 years ago.
Though medulloblastoma is still a grave diagnosis, many children are cured today thanks to chemotherapy and improvements in radiation, said Elwood. "And the surgery is a little bit better now. We use a microscope. Back then I did it with magnifying spectacles," he said.
The story of the girl illustrates the extraordinary medical advances Elwood has witnessed through his long career. His book covers the development of neurology and neurosurgery.
"I have lived through much of the development of neurology as a specialty," said Elwood, who decided to go into neuroscience in 1955 after reading Wilder Penfield's "Epilepsy and Functional Anatomy of the Human Brain." Elwood was studying at the Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago at the time.
"I read it over the course of a weekend. It was the most dramatic thing. After I read that book I knew I wanted to go neuroscience," he said. "Then I asked a lot of people who said, 'Yes, it's an interesting field, but you shouldn't go into it because the field was already too full.' There were 300 people in the country in the field -- today there are about 4,000. I was disappointed, but later decided I didn't want to do anything else, so I went into it. It worked out."
A native of central Illinois, Elwood returned to Peoria after nine years of training and spent his entire career here. He participated in the formation of the Illinois Neurological Institute, residencies in neurology and neurosurgery, and the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria where he now holds the title of Professor Emeritus of Neurosurgery.
"Every weekday at 7 a.m. I attend the neurosurgical conference for neurosurgery residents," said Elwood. Even though he retired from surgery at 72 -- standing for 8 to 10 hours was beginning to get difficult -- he's never really retired. Elwood serves on several committees and keeps abreast of all the latest research and innovations.
"One of the biggest things coming is the application of artificial intelligence to medicine," he said. "AI gives huge amounts of data to the computer algorithm and it learns quickly. For some skin lesions the computer can do a better job than a dermatologist just looking at it. The computer has superior pattern recognition. AI is already being used as an over-read in mammography."
Publishing a book is something Elwood has been planning for a while.
"I've written science papers, but never anything like this. It was fun," he said. "I wrote whenever I felt like it. Through most of it I was still working full time."
Elwood had originally planned to write two books -- one on his personal story, and one which would appeal more to his colleagues. In the end he wrote one book that appeals to everyone. So far it's been a success -- the book signing was the best attended in the history of I Know You Like a Book in Peoria Heights, said Elwood.
"I signed 83 books. It was a mix of people, some from the hospital, some I knew, some I didn't, some doctors, some patients," said Elwood. "It was really fun. I saw a lot of people I hadn't seen in a while."
Paperback copies of "A life in Neurosurgery" are available at I Know You Like a Book, and on Amazon.com. A Kindle version is also available on Amazon.