Working Their Magic

The three neurosurgeons at South Texas Brain and Spine Center are on a mission of healing.

By: Dayna Worchel
Photos by: Edgar de la Garza and Paul Marshall

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The three doctors of South Texas Brain and Spine Center in Corpus Christi are on a special healing mission for their patients. They have helped children to see again and patients of all ages to walk again – to become pain free and live full lives again. And since they are the only neurosurgery practice in existence for 100 miles in all directions around the city, Drs. Matthew Alexander, Howard Smith and P. Langham Gleason stay extremely busy working their magic. All three physicians perform the most minimally invasive surgeries, using a scope and imaging, necessary to get their patients back up to speed.

They have a clinic in Victoria, and Gleason, who is a pediatric neurosurgeon, travels to the Rio Grande Valley to see patients there. Alexander’s specialty is adult brain and spine surgery. “

I do complex brain and spine surgery on adults, mainly. My expertise is in minimally invasive surgeries such as outpatient endoscopic discectomies to complex scoliosis or cancer reconstruction surgery.” Alexander said.

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He treats Parkinson’s disease, handles pain management and performs carpal tunnel surgeries. Alexander also performs deep brain stimulation surgery for Parkinson’s disease, where the patient is wide-awake during surgery to tell doctors what he or she is experiencing. Doctors insert electrodes into the brain to control the tremors. “It’s really pretty cool,” Alexander said. “It can be very effective, but it’s not for everybody. It really improves a patient’s quality of life.”

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The most rewarding part of being a neurosurgeon for Alexander is seeing how he can change someone’s life, he said. For instance, the patient may have been paralyzed, but is able to walk again. He cautions, however, that results aren’t always optimal and that patients can’t always get the results they want. “But the patient is happy that they are pain free,” he said. “I see that on an almost daily or weekly basis where patients are happy with the outcomes and can get back to their normal lives.”

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Alexander began the group practice in Corpus Christi in 2004 after moving to the city to be closer to his brother, Dr. Thomas Alexander, a cardiologist in town, and a sister who is a neurologist in Houston. He grew up in Louisville, Ky., with his dad, now a retired general surgeon. It was his father, who often brought young Matthew to the operating room, who inspired Alexander to become a surgeon. His parents have since moved to Corpus Christi. “Now we’re all Texas natives, I guess,” he said with a smile.

Alexander performs the most minimally invasive type of surgery as possible on patients who have been in car accidents or falls, or who have a type of degenerative disease associated with aging. “Sometimes we treat people with scoliosis or correct someone’s unstable fracture, but if we can do something with a scope, I try to do that more often than the more complicated surgeries if it’s applicable for the patient,” he said.

He also performs cyber knife radio surgery. It’s a cutting-edge type of treatment for cancerous tumors that are metastatic or can’t be easily accessible for surgery, according to Alexander. “I work with a radiation doctor, typically over at Spohn Shoreline, and I map out the lesion and she figures how to dose it. It’s a very cool technology,” said Alexander, who also serves as chairman of surgery and neurosurgery for CHRISTUS Spohn Health System in Corpus Christi. “I have many roles in helping to provide the best care for our patients,” he added.

But the most important piece of information Alexander wants to get across to the public is that the quality of medical care the practice offers rivals that of any big city. “There’s nothing here that we don’t offer that is offered in any other city like Houston or San Antonio,” he said. “We offer the same care here, so that if there are any problems, we can deal with that here.”

Dr. Howard Smith
Smith didn’t hesitate to say what his motivation was for becoming a neurosurgeon. “I had an uncle and a cousin die of brain tumors. That’s what inspired me,” he said as he took a quick break in his office between a morning of seeing patients and heading off to the hospital.

Smith typically treats degenerative diseases and injuries of the brain, spine and head, along with broken necks. “Most of the work we do is not trauma, but treating conditions such as degenerative disease, herniated disk, cervical or lumbar stenosis, brain tumors and brain infections,” said Smith, who hails from Bartlesville, Okla.

He’s had good luck with using more minimally invasive methods treating those conditions, he said. Years ago, the types of surgery he performs were much more complicated. “Patients used to be in the hospital three or four days and need a blood transfusion,” he said. “Now they can go home the same day.”

Smith also has a unique perspective on practicing medicine. He earned his law degree from Loyola University in 2002 and worked as a medical malpractice defense attorney in Mississippi for a time after injuring his knee in 1994. The knee injury meant he couldn’t stand for long periods and operate on patients, and his caseload had dropped considerably. Smith said his wife suggested law school because she thought he was bored after he had quit operating. “I went to night law school in New Orleans after working from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” he said. “It took me four years. It was a two-hour trip there and two-hour drive home.”

But once his knee healed, he went back to being a surgeon. “I always liked being a doctor better,” he said with a smile.

Dr. P. Langham Gleason
Gleason decided he would specialize in pediatric neurosurgery after he watched a surgery in which a 14-year-old girl’s pituitary tumor was removed and she regained her eyesight. It was during his pediatric neurology rotation at Massachusetts General Hospital, and one of the neurosurgeons there had seen his workup on the young patient. He inspired Gleason to choose a career in pediatric neurosurgery, and Gleason was sold.

“That’s powerful magic, helping a child see again,” Gleason said. He likened the feeling of helping a child and the gratitude of the parents to “hitting the walk-off homerun in the World Series.”

The most common surgery he performs is on children born with hydrocephalus, or extra fluid in the brain. It’s frequently seen in children who are born premature or who have a type of blockage in the brain, which prevents circulation of spinal fluid, Gleason said. The head can swell to an amazing size, and a shunt must be placed in the brain to drain the excess fluid.

The latest treatments for children with hydrocephalus involve using an endoscope to make an opening at the base of the brain to drain the fluid, Gleason said. There are now programmable shunts with magnetically adjustable valves that can be used to drain the excess fluid, he said. Shunts are generally in place permanently and must be replaced if a problem develops, he said.

There are some challenges in operating on children, according to Gleason. “Being a pediatric neurosurgeon is the most difficult when a child can’t be saved. That never gets easier,” he said. “I rely on my faith, and explain that my own belief is that it’s always been God’s plan for that child to return home at that time. Explaining things in physiological terms to parents doesn’t help in those situations.”

Gleason trained at Harvard’s Children’s Hospital of Boston, the only neurosurgery residency based at a children’s hospital. He said the main reason he came to Corpus Christi is the reputation of Driscoll General Hospital, and that he is thrilled to work with his two partners. “They are very dedicated individuals; one of us is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “Dr. Smith and Dr. Alexander are warm, patient and committed doctors.”

For more information, visit www.southtexasbrainandspinecenter.com.

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