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Alexander Tucker

Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

Some surgeons shy away from personal, emotional connections with patients. Not Alexander Tucker, a pediatric neurosurgeon who operates at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He performs some of the most complicated, time-intensive operations on patients who often have bad outcomes, with abnormalities in their spine and its connection to the cranium.

“Working in an organ system that we know very little about is exciting,” Tucker said. “And being around sick people, particularly in the end of their life, is a real privilege. Especially a child.”

Some surgeries can last as long as 14 hours, but Tucker doesn’t go home afterward. He goes to his office to write or to the lab, where he researches wound healing. It’s an unusual interest area for neurosurgeons, but to Tucker, it makes complete sense.

After surgery, his patients don’t actually want to talk about, say, their chiari malformation — where part of the brain bulges below the skull base to meet the spine. They want to talk about when the scar on the back of their neck will heal, and if their hair will grow back.

“I took that to heart,” Tucker said.

Along with a material scientist at University of Pennsylvania, he is working on an adhesive specifically designed for children, for use on the head or face and removal with minimal scarring. Surgeons make incisions strategically to disguise scars — if scars go away, that can change.

Tucker lights up, full of enthusiastic energy, when talking about his work.

“I think I would be a happy pediatrician or a happy cardiologist. But I’m a really, really, really happy pediatric neurosurgeon,” he said.

— Theresa Gaffney