ROCHESTER, MN—Speaking with reporters about how lucky he feels to be pursuing his life’s passion full-time, local neurosurgeon Chris Monson said Wednesday he will always be grateful he found a way to turn his favorite hobby into a career.
A self-taught cerebrovascular surgeon who learned the craft in his spare time, Monson recalled how he started out by tinkering around on nights and weekends in his garage, where he would cut into human brains under the dim light of a single bare bulb and, whenever possible, convince reluctant family members to serve as guinea pigs.
“I just feel so blessed that what was once a simple pastime of cracking open a skull here and digging out a tumor there has blossomed into a profession,” said Monson, adding that the first 50 or 60 brains he worked on didn’t turn out too well, but through extensive trial and error, he eventually began to see “the lay of the land” and learn his way around the central nervous system. “It’s wild to think I’m making six figures for something I used to do for fun. In those early days, it honestly never occurred to me you could make a living at this.”
“Back then, I didn’t even care if the hammer slipped and I got a face full of cerebrospinal fluid,” Monson continued. “It was all a labor of love.”
As he sat in his office at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, Monson reminisced about the long, difficult road to becoming the successful surgeon he is today. In the beginning, he didn’t even have access to proper tools, and his hands would reportedly shake every time he used a box cutter to make an incision or clipped off a bulging aneurysm with a rusty pair of wire cutters. With MRI and PET scan technology far beyond his reach, he had to “rope in a buddy and fire up the drill press every time [he] wanted to see what was going on under the hood.”
Nowadays, Monson has access to all the state-of-the-art equipment he needs, but he admits he occasionally gets nostalgic for the days when he was his own boss and didn’t have to concern himself with paperwork, professional licensing requirements, or remembering to wear a mask and gloves.
“My first operating table was just a piece of plywood on a couple sawhorses next to my lawnmower,” said Monson while scrubbing in for a routine minimally invasive neuroendoscopy. “There wasn’t anyone around telling you which parts of the cerebrum you could or couldn’t remove. If you wanted to know what happens when you hook a car battery up to a brain stem or stick a pencil through the corpus callosum, you just went right ahead and tried it.”
“There are times when I miss the bone dust on my work boots and the whirring of an old Craftsman band saw in my ears,” he added. “This place can feel a little sterile by comparison.”
Monson remarked that just as hard as learning the ins and outs of the most complex organ in the body was learning to tune out the doubters and naysayers who did not approve of his devotion to amateur surgery. Friends and family reportedly told him he should abandon his obsession with do-it-yourself craniotomies and get a real job. According to Monson, his wife at the time was never supportive, complaining every time he operated into the early hours of the morning and came to bed covered in brain matter and skull fragments.
“When I first started, I didn’t know the difference between this lobe or that hemisphere—I just saw this big pink lump of meat and thought there must be something interesting going on in there,” Monson said. “It goes to show anyone can teach themselves how to do this stuff. Of course, when you have a day job, you may get to work on something and then have to put it aside until the weekend, and when you finally come back to it, you’re staring at a pile of dead nervous tissues. But keep at it! You’ll get there.”
“Just remember to seize every opportunity you get to grab a knife and poke around in a human brain,” he added. “But above all, don’t be afraid to fail—a lot.”