By Angela Forsyth | Photography by John Pittman
After 30 years in the field and 10 years actively working toward opening a stand-alone neuroscience center with a research and education building on campus, world-renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Ali Krisht is finally realizing his goal.
CHI St. Vincent will soon open its new, technologically advanced Arkansas Neuroscience Institute in Sherwood which will deliver a complete package of care to patients dealing with neurological diseases. Expected to open in early 2019, the center will include a $13 million renovation to an existing hospital facility and a newly constructed $17 million, 40,000-square-foot research and education building.
The “whole package” vision came to Krisht years ago when he was working at the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences along with his two mentors, Professors Ossama Al-Mefty and M. Gazi Yasargil. Al-Mefty and Yasargil are respected as pioneers in the field of neurosurgery. Working alongside them, Krisht gained experience operating on cases previously considered inoperable by other facilities, leading him to develop a passion for reaching for the unreachable.
When Krisht – who stands among the top 1 percent of neurosurgeons in the nation – decided to leave the university, Harvard began recruiting him. In an effort to keep him in Arkansas, CHI St. Vincent asked Krisht what it would take to make him stay. He told administrators it would take an institute where patients could come from all over the country and the world to undergo treatments that have been otherwise considered non-treatable. His vision was for a neurosurgery center in Little Rock that would become the first place people all over the world think of when it comes to complicated or non-operable tumors. From that conversation, a plan was set in motion for an improved neuroscience center. Al-Mefty – who had also been courted by Harvard – and Krisht co-founded the Arkansas Neuroscience Institute (ANI) in 2009.
Krisht operates on all types of brain and spinal tumors, particularly cerebrovascular, pituitary and those at the base of the skull. He is the editor of Contemporary Neurosurgery and serves on several editorial boards of medical journals. He has given more than 170 presentations and lectures throughout the world. His surgical treatments, too, have been studied internationally as he travels to teach more than 60 courses in several different countries. He leads classes regularly in Taiwan, Finland, Holland, Italy and Turkey. In Taiwan, his influence has been so effective in training and preparing local surgeons that he was awarded honorary citizenship for the city of Taipei.
At the current ANI in Little Rock, several courses are offered continuously, and they will increase with the facility’s expansion. Physicians and students from around the world visit Little Rock, some to spend three to six months learning new methods and some to do fully immersive one- or two-year-long fellowships. Some frequent visitors go for a visit only to decide they need to come back for a deeper, fuller understanding of the advanced practices being performed at the institute. They often return for an extended fellowship.
Krisht’s goal for ANI goes beyond teaching and training great neurosurgeons. He aspires for the ANI team to be influential in the continuous evolvement of the entire neuroscience field. He plans to inject it with improved practices and procedures that will propel the field forward.
“We are Little Rock,” Krisht says. “But, this will be the big rock of Little Rock. I want this to be the mecca… It’s not that we’re smarter or better. I think we work harder. We care more, and we have a plan.”
His vision will officially become a reality in just a few short months. Altogether, the hospital renovation and the construction of the new research and education building will cost approximately $30 million, and will be overseen by Denver-based developer NexCore Group, North Little Rock’s TAGGART Architects, Little Rock’s Clark Contractors and Conway’s Nabholz Construction.
The hospital was already at the St. Vincent North Campus, but several upgrades have been made to tailor it as a uniquely specialized neuro-hospital. The traditional operating rooms were revamped into neuro-operating rooms with more state-of-the-art equipment and brand-new ICUs.
Because of Krisht’s reputation in neurosurgery, the patient load has increased at CHI St. Vincent. The expanded space dedicated solely to neuro patients also serves to fill that demand. Vice President of Operations Chris Stines, who is helping to oversee the development of the new ANI building, spoke about the need for a larger space in the spring of 2018, just after ground was broken on the research and education center: “We’ve outgrown our space over on the main campus at Little Rock,” he says. “So, this was an opportunity to move to North Little Rock… It allowed us to have one location, to build a new facility and to better utilize an underutilized location.”
The research and education building will accommodate modern clinics, research, classrooms and labs. In one laboratory, cadavers are infused to bleed like real-life bodies with working blood circulation systems. Participants will be able to learn from realistic experiences while they practice operating, instead of being faced with major catastrophic situations for the first time on a live patient. “You can do a surgery 20 times on a bleeding cadaver so that by the time you get into the operating room, you’re an experienced surgeon even though you just graduated,” Krisht says.
Another high-tech highlight is an auditorium that holds 150 people and is connected via fiber line to the operating room for 3D viewing. Spectators will be able to sit in the auditorium wearing 3D glasses, and on the screen ahead, they will be able to see the surgery through the point of view of Krisht’s microscope as he operates.
The education and research center will also incorporate full-immersion cameras. Imagine 10 to 12 cameras hanging from the ceiling of an operating room, Krisht says. Visitors in a conference room can watch and feel as if they are there in the operating room.
“They’ll look left and see the anesthesiologist. They’ll look down and see the patient. They’ll turn around and see the scrub nurse and surgeon,” Krisht describes. “Sometimes you have 100 people in the conference room, and you can’t bring them all into the operating room. This way they all can feel they’re in there.”
Krisht says it took an enormous amount of passion and devotion to this singular mission to see it through to fruition. Stines credits Krisht’s vision for what he knows will have an incredible impact on the region.
“It’s been a part of Dr. Krisht’s vision to have a neuroscience building in Arkansas where neuroscience can be the center of patient delivery, as well as research and education,” Stines says. “There’s only a few of them in the country. Because of Dr. Krisht’s national and global vision, a facility to have that activity has always been part of his vision for Central Arkansas.”
To have the foresight and ability to realize the creation of a highly-advanced, technologically-based neurosurgery center like this is an impressive achievement, Krisht admits. Just becoming a neurosurgeon is a rightfully remarkable feat on its own. While most surgeons are doing an excellent job caring for their communities, healing people and in many cases saving lives, it takes even more devotion to accomplish such an expansion.
“To achieve a vision like this, you have to be relentless, passionate and persistent. You don’t give up,” Krisht says. “It’s the same with surgeries. It’s the reason I don’t give up on the inoperable. Imagine this is your wife, your kids, your mom. You don’t want anyone to give up on them, and if you keep thinking this way you keep trying, and every day becomes a mission.”