In Memoriam: Peter J. Jannetta

I first witnessed Peter Jannetta, MD, at work when I was a medical student interning during the summer with the Department of Neurological Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, Presbyterian University Hospital. Quietly, I observed as he guided the surgical team through his now famous operation for facial pain, a microvascular decompression surgery. His operating room reminded me of an organized baseball game. There was a light banter between him and everyone else in the room. To the anesthesiologist, “What’s the blood pressure?” To his chief resident, “That’s good, that’s good. Go in with closed scissors.” To the neurophysiologist, “What is wave V doing? That’s just blood on the nerve.” To the surgical technician, “Always be ready to give me back the instrument I just used.” He knew everyone involved in the operation by his or her first name. Years later, I learned his secret for remembering everyone’s name: If he forgot a name, he would lean to me and whisper that he had forgotten a name, and I would remind him. Although he was clearly the leader of this team, he insisted that everyone call him P.J. If a student nurse was fortunate enough to be assigned to his room, he always introduced himself and explained the operation in a manner a newcomer could understand. “You see how big that nerve looks on the screen? This is how big it really is!” as he held up a microinstrument with a small tip of a size similar to the nerve. Although he never listened to music in the operating room, he would often hum a favorite melody during a particularly difficult portion of the operation. At the end of his portion of the operation, “the fancy part,” as he called it, he instructed the circulating nurse to call the family and tell them, “We’re closing. Everything went well.”

Outside of the operating room, he was much the same. Sometimes, I think he enjoyed evaluating patients in the clinic as much as the operating room (unusual for a surgeon). He relished private moments with the patients; he loved to learn where they had traveled from and their line of work and hobbies. His patients traveled from across the globe to see him. If patients could not attend his usual clinic day, he would see them between cases despite an extremely busy operating day. Years later, when he had saved enough for a place in the country, he often evaluated members of that small, rural community in his home on Saturdays. In that capacity, however, he acted as a general physician, diagnosing and treating a wide range of nonneurological illnesses. Until the end of his life, he read each issuance of the New England Journal of Medicine. While his residents were opening and closing operations, he often worked quickly through the New York Times crossword puzzle. Sometimes, he would ask me to secure it for him before one of his general surgeon friends got to it in the surgical lounge. He had been trained as a general surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania before his neurosurgical training at UCLA.

Read more by Dr. Raymond F. Sekula Jr. here