The Making of a Neurosurgeon, Dr. Donald Quest

Nov. 12, 2018

Dr. Quest

Dr. Donald Quest’s contributions to the field of neurosurgery are outstanding—so much so that in 2012 he was awarded the Cushing Medal, the highest honor granted by the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. His career has been about advancing the field of neurosurgery—from the organizational level (by leading just about every national neurosurgical group) to the individual level (by being an award-winning mentor). He has dedicated himself to helping patients with problems of the spine and the carotid artery, in the process being included in Castle Connolly’s New York’s Best Doctors, America’s Top Doctors and Top Doctors: New York Metro Area.

Given all he’s done in neurosurgery, it’s hard to believe Dr. Quest had another career first. Before he was a neurosurgeon, Donald Quest served two tours of duty as a naval aviator in Vietnam. And it was there, in the five difficult years of his first career, that he learned a lesson that shaped his medical career and helped him shape the field of neurosurgery:

“When you’re flying an airplane—you, yourself—and you’re landing on an aircraft carrier, you want to do it perfectly. You don’t want any mistakes. But when you’re flying with other airplanes, you want the other guys to be good also, because they’re flying right off your wing tip,” says Dr. Quest.

“So that feeling of, not only making yourself the best you can be, but making those around you the best they can be—encouraging them, having that esprit de corps—that really made a big difference in my Navy career. And I definitely brought that into neurosurgery. I wanted to be in a group where everybody was looking out for one another.

“I think you’ll just have a lot more enjoyment in your career, and your life, doing that.

“I know I have.”

And the field is better for it.

Donald O. Quest was born in St. Louis in 1939. The first in his family to go to college, he earned a Navy scholarship to the University of Illinois, where he studied mathematics. He discovered that he enjoyed serving campus groups in leadership roles. “I had a good feeling about organizing people and having everyone work together for a common goal,” he says. He also found he liked the idea of combining science with caring for people, and by his junior year, he was thinking seriously about becoming a doctor.

But after graduation, he had his obligation to the Navy to fulfill, so when he graduated in 1961, Vietnam was waiting for him.

The young Quest was accepted to flight school, and he served his duty as a single-engine fighter pilot aboard the U.S.S. Kittyhawk between 1963 and 1966. He wasn’t interested in making a career out of the military. He still wanted to be a doctor. Near the end of his service, Donald Quest used his college notebooks to brush up on physics, chemistry, etc, took the MCAT entrance exam—and then applied to only two medical schools. “That’s pretty much unheard of,” he laughs now. “Everybody applies to 30 or so. But I had no guidance. I just did it on my own.”

He was accepted into both University of California, San Francisco and Columbia University Medical Center. He chose Columbia.

In his first year of medical school, Quest especially enjoyed the neuroscience course. One of his instructors was Bennett Stein, a neurosurgeon who would go on to fundamentally shape the Columbia Neurosurgery Department and Quest’s career. Dr. Quest remembers that, from the earliest days the two knew each other, Dr. Stein was a “balanced, wonderful teacher and an enthusiastic person.”

In fact, the more people Quest met during medical school, the more he thought neurosurgery might be the field for him. He says, “I was tempted along the way by internal medicine, ophthalmology… I mean, medicine is interesting! But in neurosurgery, I liked the subject matter, and I also liked the people.” Perhaps the young Quest’s history of applying meticulously acquired knowledge and the highest degree of precision to life-or-death situations predisposed him to “click” with neurosurgeons—and inspired him to pursue greatness in the field himself.

By the time he graduated from medical school, Dr. Quest had settled on neurosurgery. He trained in general surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital and then returned to Columbia to undergo specialty instruction in neurosurgery. He trained under Dr. Lawrence Pool, a pioneer in vascular neurosurgery who was Neurosurgery Chairman at the time. Dr. Quest says, “He was dynamic, amazing. He and the others were really top-flight neurosurgeons—and also really good people.”

After finishing his training, Dr. Quest spent two years as an assistant professor of neurosurgery at SUNY Downstate. Then he returned to Columbia, taking a faculty position at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Today he is an endowed professor of neurosurgery, and his position, the J. Lawrence Pool Professor of Neurosurgery, is named after his mentor. “That’s a real honor for me,” says Dr. Quest. “He was a remarkable person.”

Dr. J. Lawrence Pool was Chair when Dr. Quest came on board. Just a few years after Dr. Quest joined the team, the enthusiastic medical school neuroanatomy professor, Dr. Bennett Stein, took over the department chairmanship. Dr. Stein’s vision for the department was a perfect fit with Dr. Quest’s own outlook, and it proved to be prophetic—a model of teamwork that was almost unheard of then but is extremely widespread now.

Dr. Stein’s vision was to compose a department of super specialists. One neurosurgeon would specialize in brain tumors, one in blood vessels, one in the spine, etc. Dr. Stein thought patients would receive better care from doctors who had very deep expertise in a particular slice of the field, rather than doctors who handled every condition in every aspect of neurosurgery. He also thought the department would run more smoothly than many neurosurgery departments did at the time, as the doctors would collaborate, rather than compete.

And on both counts, Dr. Stein was correct: Patients benefited from the expertise of the specialists, and the department ran more smoothly. Dr. Quest was among the first doctors to sign on to Dr. Stein’s vision. He specialized in spinal surgery and carotid artery surgery, and he built a thriving practice around those areas of expertise.

As it grew, the department hired more members—excellent surgeons who were also team players. Dr. Quest was able to use his natural inclinations for teamwork and mentorship to help his newer colleagues develop. Neurosurgeon Dr. Deborah Benzil, who practiced in Westchester County, NY, says that one remarkable thing about Dr. Quest is that he is “always recruiting great people. The result has been departments and boards known for their depth and breadth. Working on a Quest team, one always feels respected and that one’s ideas are heard. This is a rare and remarkable trait.”

Over the course of his career, Dr. Quest has employed these strengths close to home and far afield. He has been both Vice Chairman and Acting Chairman of the Columbia Neurosurgery Department. At the same time, he has kept a pilot’s-eye view of the field as a whole, and his leadership roles read like a decades-long tour of the neurosurgical alphabet:

…And more.

Dr. Quest’s Cushing Medal was awarded for his “many years of outstanding leadership, dedication and contributions to the field of neurosurgery.”

But Dr. Quest says that, to him, his greatest contributions to the field aren’t attached to an organization or a title. Instead, he points to his “commitment to enhancing the field and educating people, and a devotion to what I consider the right things: empathy, caring for patients, using good judgment and doing the very best work I can.” These are Dr. Quest’s touchstones.

Dr. Quest considers judgment an especially important trait to emphasize as he educates the next generation of doctors. “I always tell students that surgery is not in the hands; surgery’s in the head. It’s the judgment of who you can help, and who you can’t, with an operation.”

Helping patients, he tells medical students and young doctors, is the thing to keep in the forefront of their minds throughout the careers ahead of them. In fact, his main hopes for his students are “that they consider medicine a calling and not a job, and that they really care for their patients and do the best they can for them—and thus have a fulfilling and rewarding life. They will get the most out of their careers if they keep in mind their love for their patients.”

These days, Dr. Quest no longer performs surgery, but he still sees patients, who benefit from his decades of experience. And more patients also benefit from the surgical skill of the neurosurgeons who have come into their own under his leadership. He puts an incredible amount of time and energy into his outstanding work as a mentor. “I really love Columbia, and I love neurosurgery, so I try to give back to those coming into the field, and into medicine,” he explains. “I try to help them and guide them. That’s what my goals are now.”

It’s a career that provides him with very full days, a set of accomplishments he can look back on with pride and a set of goals that will continue to propel the field forward.

To learn more about Dr. Quest, visit his bio page here.

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