Charting a Familiar Course
The first time George Greene accompanied his father to the operating room, it imprinted a memory and helped map a career.
“It was about midnight,” he recalls. “A woman had a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.”
John Greene, MD, was a neurosurgeon back when specialists of his caliber were rare.
“We had talked about his work before,” Greene says. “Dad had asked me if he ever had a case and was in a position to take me to the OR, would I like to come and watch. I had told him, ‘sure, I’d be interested.’
“So, I got to watch my first craniotomy.”
It’s easy to understand why the operation made a lasting impression. Greene was only 12 years old at the time.
“She survived,” he says, “thanks to my father.”
Today, George Greene, MD, walks in his father’s footsteps yet sets his own distinct pace. As a noted Omaha neurosurgeon, Dr. Greene utilizes the latest imaging tools and therapies to perform operations his father had helped to perfect.
“My father was technically an excellent neurosurgeon, and he witnessed a lot of changes throughout his career,” says Dr. Greene. “Things have certainly changed since I began practicing, but a lot have been refinements of advances made during his time as a neurosurgeon.”
Advances that have directly benefitted the patients of both men.
Dr. John Greene began his practice at Clarkson Hospital in 1969 and is credited with development of the hospital’s neurosurgery program. Known among his colleagues for his expertise and his willingness to embrace technology and new techniques to advance the field of neurosurgery, he was selected by a committee of his peers at The Nebraska Medical Center as a 2009 Legends award recipient.
“He came from a very humble background, and he was able to maintain that humility throughout his career,” Dr. Greene says. “He was loved by his patients, his co-workers and his colleagues, and I think it was because he showed so much respect for all of them. He treated everyone with dignity.
“When he retired, he sent dozens of roses to the OR and nursing floors, even the environmental services department. He knew how important every person was when it came to healthcare and patient well-being.”
Dr. Greene also had a bit of a humble beginning. Born in Indianapolis on April 22, 1959, he grew up in and around Omaha. For a time, he attended a three-room elementary school just north of the city.
A graduate of Northwest High School, he earned a bachelor of science degree from Stanford University in 1981. He earned his medical degree from the University of Nebraska College of Medicine in 1985.
It was during that period that he met his wife, Christine, at University Hospital. “She was a nurse on 5 West when I was a medical student,” he recalls. “We married right after I graduated.”
They moved to Iowa City where she continued to work as a nurse while Dr. Greene completed his internship in surgery and neurosurgery residency at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
The couple has a son, Harrison, 21, who is majoring in biology at Kansas University and 14-year-old triplets. Charles and Walker are both at Creighton Prep and Olivia is a student at Marian High School.
After completing his residency in 1991, Dr. Greene returned to Omaha and practiced neurosurgery with his father until the senior Dr. Greene retired in 1996.
“We enjoyed practicing together very much,” he says. “It was a valuable post-training period for me. He is as experienced as anyone around.”
When away from the clinics or the operating room, Dr. Greene does all he can to avoid being surrounded by walls. Once an avid big game hunter who traveled to Africa and Alaska, he drifted away from the sport after his last hunt in Canada — which took place during the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
Traveling with his father and several colleagues, the group was near the Distant Early Warning Line, the band of radar installations in the far northern arctic region of Canada, when the terrorists struck in New York and Washington.
“We heard about it by satellite phone, but the details were very spotty,” he recalls. “We heard all sorts of incorrect information, like casualty totals, for a while up in the tens of thousands.”
Eventually the group made its way back to the United States. “I kind of lost my interest in international travel after that,” he says.
And while he still does some upland bird hunting, much of his free time is spent on the water, sailing competitively in the Yngling Fleet at Lake Okoboji with his friend, Omaha gastroenterologist John Mitchell, MD.
“Christine grew up around Okoboji,” Dr. Greene says. “That’s why we first started going up there. Once we made the commitment and bought a home there, I knew I was going to learn how to sail.”
He has progressed from dingy sailing to bigger boat sailing, making trips to Puget Sound and Desolation Sound to the north, as well as the San Juan Islands north of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Dr. Greene also enjoys bicycling and participated last year in his first RAGBRAI, the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.
“I have some friends who bicycle and thought I’d like to do that,” he says. “So I did some training in preparation.”
Physically, he says, the trip posed no surprises. “You get stronger as the week goes on,” he says. “On the last day, that 50-mile leg seems like just a chip shot.”
What was surprising was the number of fellow riders. “On the first day, there were upwards of 30,000 people,” he says. “There was a string of bikes 60 miles long. Some people were finishing when others were just starting.”
He plans to return to RAGBRAI this year — for at least part of it.
“It’s hard to take off the time,” he says, smiling. “That’s two fewer weeks I can go sailing.”
Together, Dr. Greene and his colleagues are taking neurosurgery to the next level.
In addition to performing intra-cranial, spine and adult general neurosurgery, he is part of an acoustic neuroma (hearing imbalance nerve) treatment team, a multidisciplinary group that includes Otolaryngologist Britt Thedinger, MD, and Radiation Oncologist Robert Thompson, MD.
Acoustic neuroma is a benign, slow-growing tumor that develops on the main nerve leading from the inner ear to the brain. Pressure from the tumor can cause hearing loss, a ringing in the ear and unsteadiness.
“Besides our collective expertise in treating this tumor, we have the Novalis system, a radiation therapy treatment device that allows us to significantly broaden our treatment options,” Dr. Greene says.
The Novalis system employs a non-invasive delivery of a precise dose of high-energy radiation that can shrink or control the growth of a tumor by killing tumor cells or interfering with their ability to grow. Virtually painless, it is usually performed on an outpatient basis.
“When we first started, Britt and I would take care of the tumors surgically. Or, with very small tumors, we would just observe them for a period,” Dr. Greene says. “As science develops new tools like the Novalis system, we are able to incorporate other options for our patients.”
He and his fellow specialists also are taking neurosurgery directly to their patients. In cooperation with The Nebraska Medical Center, he and his partners offer post operative and other follow-up care in Norfolk and Fremont, Neb., and a half-dozen communities in Iowa.
“It’s good for me to get to the places where my patients come from,” he says. “It affords a better feel for the people we are taking care of. We get a better idea of who they are and what their stories are when we see them closer to their homes.
“It puts more of a human face on what we’re doing, rather than being here on campus all the time.”
He also has been involved in charting the future of patient care. He has served as the clinical service chief for Surgery at The Nebraska Medical Center. In his role as president of the medical staff, he helped plan the new Bellevue Medical Center.
“My greatest contribution there was assisting with the medical staff organization and governance,” he says. “It was exciting to watch a hospital being built from the ground up, and to have a hand in shaping its direction. That is a very rare opportunity.”
Dr. Greene will continue to have a positive impact on the care and well-being of patients for many years to come. It will be much in the same manner as his father — who through skilled hands, an eagerness to embrace new technologies and techniques and foresight — asked a curious young man to come along on a midnight trip to the operating room some 40 years ago.