SOM student speaker headed for his toughest job yet: neurosurgeon

Burrows sees neurosurgery as the intersection of what he enjoys most about medicine

By Mark Shelton

UMass Medical School Communications

June 01, 2011

School of Medicine class speaker Anthony Burrows has had a number of interesting jobs: bike mechanic, dishwasher, deli clerk—but also soldier, emergency medical technician, scientific researcher and laser technician. His next one will no doubt rival them all for the sheer challenge: In July, he’ll start his residency in neurological surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. 

“I’m very excited about going to Mayo Clinic as a resident in neurosurgery,” he said. “UMMS was a great place to learn medicine with great basic science fundamentals and world-class faculty. From the students to the faculty, it was an easy place to thrive. I am particularly indebted to neurosurgeon Julie Pilitsis for her research mentorship and mentorship in the field.” Dr. Pilitsis, MD, PhD, is an assistant professor of surgery. 

Burrows, married and the father of two girls (“Fatherhood is the most challenging job; everything changes after the kids are born, and everything is sublimated to the needs of those kids,” he said.) enlisted in the U.S. Army after high school, ostensibly to earn money for college, but also, he acknowledged, searching for some element of adventure. He spent four years stationed in Texas and South Korea, and left as an artillery sergeant in 2001. 

While studying biochemistry at UMass Boston, he worked first as an EMT, and then, while applying to medical school, for a year with Omniguide, a Cambridge-based surgical laser company. He chose UMMS because it “seemed the one where I’d best fit in, because of its primary care mission, and its location in Central Massachusetts.” 

So how did he end up choosing a highly technological and highly competitive neurosurgical residency? 

“My interest in the neurosciences began with early neurobiology and neuroanatomy classes. This interest led me to volunteer with a patient education event for Parkinson’s disease patients, and the organizer, Dr. Pilitsis, gave me the opportunity to almost immediately begin collaborating on projects with her in the division of neurosurgery. This collaboration also afforded me the opportunity to see patients in the clinic from my first year and to gain exposure to a variety of neurological and neurosurgical conditions. 

“When I saw a demonstration of the improvement of a patient with deep brain stimulation, I was hooked,” he said. “I eventually independently applied for and received funding for research, which ultimately culminated in receiving the American Association of Neurological Surgeons Medical Student Award in 2009.” 
Like all medical students, Burrows received plenty of advice—sometimes very diverse advice—on choosing a medical specialty. But the advice that resonated the most was being told to “find the specialty that I looked forward to each morning; to choose one with providers with whom I had the most in common; to choose a field where the least glamorous work was the most enjoyable,” he said. 

“And, I was told that if I enjoyed neurosurgery, to make sure there was nothing else I could see myself doing. The neurosurgeons with whom I worked at UMMS embodied the qualities I most wanted to emulate: decisive, dedicated to their patients, and with an unrelenting demand for excellence. To me, neurosurgery is the best intersection of what I have liked most in medicine: sick patients, complex operations and anatomy, high technology tools and imaging, the need for critical decision making, and working with patients and their families during the most vulnerable and sensitive times of their lives.” 

Burrows’ parents were sculptors. “They taught me to be persistent in pursuing my career and the value in working with my hands,” he recalled. “I enlisted in the Army directly from high school, and what I found as a soldier was discipline, teamwork and fulfillment in serving a purpose much larger than my own individual needs. I saw medicine as a career that could incorporate both the teamwork and intellectual challenge that I enjoyed.”

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