Hospital has his back

Hospital has his back

Nathan Littauer, spine surgeon aim for ”something big”

By: Claire Hughes

Oct. 19, 2013

Dr. Jian Shen has a vision.

He has chosen Fulton and Montgomery counties to make it a reality.

“Even though it’s a small area, I feel I can really do something big,” Shen said.

Although the 42-year-old former molecular biologist has been a surgeon for less than three years, he is building a reputation for cutting-edge minimally invasive operations at Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville and St. Mary’s Hospital in Amsterdam. He has performed several surgical “firsts” in the region, including the first robotic-assisted spine surgery, at Nathan Littauer, this summer.

And that’s the beginning. Shen’s goal is to create a “minimally invasive spine surgery destination” here, he said. He envisions patients from around the nation traveling to the region for the highest level of surgical care.

Sound far-fetched? Maybe. Medical “destinations” are typically large, long-established institutions with national reputations, like Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic, said Alwyn Cassil of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Studying Health System Change.

But it’s also tough to discount Shen. In two and a half years, he has brought patients in from New York City, Florida, Texas and Tennessee. He is among fewer than 100 surgeons in the nation, he said, who do endoscopic surgery of the spine — correcting problems with tiny incisions and a camera that projects the body’s interior onto a screen.

After 1,300 minimally invasive spine surgeries, Shen said his patients have had no resulting serious complications, such as infections or spinal cord injuries.

“We did not make anybody worse,” Shen said. “We made lots of people better. We made lots of people pain-free.”

About 15 percent of people who come to Shen’s practice, Mohawk Valley Orthopedics, for back pain end up having surgery, Shen said. One of his best-known local patients is Alan Chartock, president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.

After a year of incessant, debilitating back pain, Chartock traveled to the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan, but left unconvinced about having a procedure there. He’d had Shen as a guest on WAMC’s call-in program, Vox Pop. Chartock says he liked the doctor because he spoke to him as an equal. Shen had also performed a successful surgery on Chartock’s friend. So Chartock decided to have his back surgery performed at Nathan Littauer.

Given a couple of surgical options, Chartock chose the less aggressive one, Shen said. It didn’t help him; soon afterward, Chartock was in pain again. So he returned for a second, more intensive operation.

“When I left, I had no pain, and I have had no pain since that time,” Chartock said. “I’m very grateful to Dr. Shen.”

But he recalled friends’ responses when he said he would have spine surgery in Gloversville.

“Each of them had said, ‘What, are you crazy?”’ Chartock said.

So why did Shen, who lives in Loudonville, choose to work in Fulton and Montgomery counties? His decision was fueled in part by interest in treating patients in an underserved community — and in part as a strategic career move.

“At a major medical center, I would be nobody,” Shen said. “I would say, ‘Get me a robot.’ It would take longer to approve. Here, I get it in a week.”

Nathan Littauer and St. Mary’s hospitals have each invested about $1.75 million in robotic equipment, microscopes and other technology to support Shen’s surgeries, the institutions’ CEOs said.

Nathan Littauer administrators believed the investment was necessary to attract a highly trained specialist to the area, where there was tremendous need for a back surgeon, said hospital President and CEO Laurence E. Kelly. Shen has had patients waiting to see him every week since he arrived.

“We took a big risk, and it’s worked out fine,” Kelly said.

Now the question is whether more spine surgeons can be lured to the region to work with the surgeon.

“I’m looking for partners right now,” Shen said, “because it’s getting so busy, I cannot handle it myself.”

(Source: Hospital has his back (

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