Before his neurosurgical training at Columbia University, even before attending medical school at Yale University, Dr. Michael Kaiser developed the skills that would benefit his career as a neurosurgeon in a surprising place: at The Expressway Deli, his family’s business, in Queens, NY.
Throughout his childhood and adolescence, a young Michael Kaiser initially cleaned floors and stocked shelves but ultimately worked behind the counter and helped manage the business.
When asked, Dr. Kaiser admits that working in a family business at times was tough. But he is indebted to the experience since it allowed him to develop character qualities much like his parents’: a disciplined work ethic, scrupulous honesty, and a genuine interest in people.
As a youngster, Kaiser was intrigued by the stories of his grandfather who was a physician in Germany, although they never had a chance to meet. This, coupled with his interest in biology and neuroscience, led him to consider medicine as a career.
He attended NYU as an undergraduate, but continued to work at the deli on weekends, and obtained his B.A. in biology in just three years. After graduation, he briefly entertained the idea of entering the world of finance. To explore his options, he took a year off from school, working at the deli full-time and volunteering at a local hospital.
His experiences while working as a volunteer made the decision an easy one. He was not only fascinated by the science of medicine but treasured the interactions with patients and their families. His interactions with people, which for so many years provided pleasure as he chatted and got to know the deli “regulars,” were the same type of relationships he could foster in medicine.
So he immediately submitted applications to medical schools in the area. The next fall, Kaiser left New York for medical school at Yale University. There he worked hard, excelling in his classes and serving as class president for three years. He played hard too, on both volleyball and softball teams.
He hadn’t decided what field of medicine he would choose, but gravitated toward surgery. “I was always attracted to the “hands-on” aspects of surgery,” he explains. “My dad was a gifted craftsman. He loved to refinish antiques and paid great attention to detail. I loved to go to his workshop… there I developed this manual, dexterous affinity for working with my hands.” So Kaiser was on the lookout for a surgical specialty where he could hone his interest in using his hands and include his love of the neurosciences.
Dr. Kaiser first got interested in neurosurgery during a pediatrics rotation at medical school. When one of his patients needed neurosurgery, he went to the operating room to observe. During this case, the proverbial “lightbulb” turned on, and Dr. Kaiser saw the light. He requested to switch his neurology rotation to neurosurgery. Immediately following these first three weeks, he decided to pursue an additional four weeks of neurosurgery as an elective. He was hooked.
Next up was neurosurgery residency, the near-decade of specialized training required after medical school. To better prepare for his residency, Dr. Kaiser applied for a one-year research fellowship and received the grant. He spent the next year at Yale studying cerebrovascular flow and its relationship to brain activity. He published a paper based on this research and attended a neurosurgery sub-internship at Columbia.
A sub-internship allows candidates to gain experience and learn more about a particular program before applying for residency. After Dr. Kaiser’s sub-internship, he knew he wanted a residency spot at Columbia. Only two of these coveted spots are available each year. Luckily, the no-nonsense work ethic Dr. Kaiser displayed during his sub-internship helped set him apart. “Legend has it,” he says, “I was the first sub-intern that volunteered to stay overnight and do the grunt work. Typically, the sub-I’s would go home at five, but I wanted to see what [the work] was really like.”
Director of the Columbia Neurosurgery Spine Center Dr. Paul McCormick, who mentored Kaiser during his residency–and later recruited him as staff–certainly noticed that unwavering work ethic. Reflecting on what set Dr. Kaiser apart, Dr. McCormick recalls, “No matter what needs to be done, no matter what the time, even at 2:00 AM, he will get the job done. He’s not one to put things off and make excuses.”
But the field of neurosurgery is full of hard workers; that wasn’t the only thing that impressed Dr. McCormick about Dr. Kaiser. “To me the most important thing is the integrity issue, the honesty issue,” says Dr. McCormick. “Doing the right thing at two in the morning when nobody’s watching… You can’t buy that. I can’t teach that. It’s part of who you are in terms of your character and he’s got it.”
Those character qualities combined with “outstanding skill” in the operating room make Dr. Kaiser truly exceptional, Dr. McCormick felt. After his residency training, Dr. McCormick knew that Dr. Kaiser was just the kind of person he would want on staff. But Kaiser wasn’t through with his training just yet.
Next Dr. Kaiser went to Emory University for a fellowship in spinal surgery. There he worked under mentors Regis Haid and Gerald (“Rusty”) Rodts. Dr. Kaiser speaks enthusiastically about what it was like to train under such outstanding surgeons and role models. Mentors like McCormick, Haid, and Rodts, he says, “are the ones that shape who you are, what you become and how you practice.”
Dr. Regis Haid admires Dr. Kaiser’s approach, not just for his surgical skill, but also for his way of relating to patients. “He doesn’t treat just the MRI or the X-ray, but he takes the time to sit down, and this sounds trite, but get to know the person as an individual. They have family responsibilities, individual wants, work requirements, things of that nature.
So when he gives a treatment recommendation, it incorporates all these unique concerns. It is truly an individualized plan, and that’s quite unusual,” says Haid. “He’s obviously incredibly skilled from a technical perspective, but I think what sets him apart is he actually takes a personal interest in the patient.”
That personal connection means a lot to Dr. Kaiser. As he realized in those post-college days volunteering in the hospital, establishing relationships is one of the things that makes medicine worthwhile. “It’s one of the things I enjoy most,” he says.
And his patients seem to echo the sentiment. “I think patients like his demeanor,” says Dr. Haid. “He’s a humble person. He’s down to earth. He’s the kind of person you can just sit down with and chat. He’s just very honest; there is no pretense or false appearances. If he can help you, he’ll tell you. If he cannot help you, he’ll tell you.” Dr. McCormick agrees. Even though Dr. Kaiser is an “outstanding surgeon, in terms of his training, his skills, his judgment,” he is “not quick to operate. [Kaiser believes that] if a patient can be made better without surgery, they are better off.”
This no-nonsense honesty and integrity have been noted far beyond the circle of his colleagues at Columbia. Dr. McCormick says that while Dr. Kaiser prefers to spend his time treating patients and can’t be bothered to “seek out positions and advancement for advancement’s sake,” he nevertheless was recently named to the editorial board of Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine. “This is an honor and reflects the high esteem that his colleagues hold for Kaiser,” explains Dr. McCormick. “His peers have said, look, we want him to sit in judgment of our most precious possession: our peer review.”
Most recently, Dr. Kaiser was invited to act as a guest examiner for the ABNS oral board exam, the last step necessary for a candidate to achieve board certification in neurosurgery. “This was truly an incredible honor, to be trusted in maintaining the highest standards of neurosurgical practice,” says Kaiser. “ I found the experience extremely rewarding and would love to participate in the future.”
Dr. Kaiser has traveled the country and even the world educating himself and those involved in the field of neurosurgery. He has trained in some of the most rigorous and selective programs available to his profession, where he has honed an affinity for working with his hands into a finely tuned surgical skill. But in many ways, he is still very close to his roots in Queens. He still has the same genuine interest in the people he meets, the honesty, and the hard-working nature that he developed in his youth. Today he just uses them in a whole new way.