ORLANDO - When Robert Hirschl makes a new acquaintance, the 38-year-old frequently receives a well-intentioned, but awkward, compliment. "Most people who meet me say 'I can't believe you are a neurosurgeon. You seem so normal!'" he said.
Or, a quip along the lines of "Well, it's not exactly brain surgery," might follow. "That gets old, but it's always in good fun," said Hirschl.
To a layman, Hirschl's expertise might appear unlikely. But to his colleagues and patients, it is anything but unexpected. Hirschl is medical director for the University of Florida Health Neurosurgery Clinic at Orlando Health, headquartered at Orlando Regional Medical Center. Hirschl also is associate chairman and associate professor of neurosurgery at UF's College of Medicine in Gainesville.
Hirschl's arrival in August 2015 added depth to the existing surgical team, which now includes five neurosurgeons and one endovascular neurologist, said William Friedman, MD, professor and chairman at UF Health Neurosurgery. "We are thrilled to have him in our department," said Friedman. "He is a very experienced neurosurgeon with expertise in endovascular, cerebrovascular and minimally invasive spine neurosurgery. He is also an experienced leader," Friedman said.
Hirschl gained a good deal of that leadership experience in his previous post at Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines, Iowa. He was the architect of the neurosurgery department at the hospital, which was the "biggest and busiest hospital in the state. I was lucky to be in a situation where I could build the program, which I really enjoyed," said Hirschl. "But I missed the academics," an area in which he had excelled during his neurosurgery residency and neuro-interventional endovascular fellowship at his medical school alma mater, Ohio State University. During residency, Hirschl said, he was awarded attending privileges at the Ohio State University Medical Center, the only time that has ever happened.
So, "When Dr. Friedman offered me the position I just couldn't pass it up," said Hirschl. The clinical collaboration between UF and Orlando Health has been "phenomenal. ... First class. And the (ORMC) staff is incredible. It has been a great experience," he said.
As medical director of Florida Health Neurosurgery at Orlando Health, Hirschl said he spends two days a week in clinic and two days in the operating room. Another day is devoted to "catching up" and administrative chores, he said. "I split most of my time between minimally invasive spine surgeries and endovascular work," said Hirschl, adding that trauma and emergent cases demand "a large portion of our time because we are the only Level 1 trauma center in the area."
There also is a hands-on teaching component for Hirschl at Orlando Health. "There's a chief resident rotation, so the chief residents at UF in Gainesville come down and rotate, usually for 3 months at a time. There's always one here. Occasionally we will have med students from UF as well as Florida State (University's) medical school," he said.
Hirschl's accomplishments reach beyond his leadership, academic and surgical skills; he also is an accomplished inventor.
"I started tinkering when I was an undergrad, but it really was when I was a resident that I got serious about inventing," he said. "I've always enjoyed coming up with solutions to problems. Trying to make minimally invasive spine surgery more effective and safer is something I've been passionate about, so most of my innovations have been surrounded by that."
"A lot of it was done on my own. I'd either sell the IP (intellectual property) to private industry, and then have my own company develop instrumentation," he said.
Hirschl described his current patent project: "One of the main challenges of minimally invasive spinal surgery is decreased fusion, or bone healing, due to lack of exposure. I have invented and am studying a novel spinal implant ... to promote bone healing and increase fusion rates."
That's lofty terrain for a young man who grew up in gritty Youngstown, Ohio, the youngest of three children and the only son of a high school science teacher and stay-at-home mom. Hirschl said he didn't even consider a career in medicine until his sophomore year at Youngstown State University. "I realized that at some point I needed to figure out what I would do with my life," he recalled. "There was a flyer on a bulletin board about a shadowing rotation for general surgery and cardiovascular surgery. I went and l loved it. I knew then (surgery) was what I wanted to do."
By then, Hirschl had met the love of his life, Erica, a fellow chemistry major with whom he found his element. "We've been together ever since," he said. The couple married in 2001, and eight years ago son Issac joined the family.
Making time to accommodate his personal and professional lives is a priority, Hirschl said, and it requires a team effort. "It's really about being around people who are understanding. I married well (with) my wife being very understanding and not expecting a lot of my time in terms of being home when most people would be home. That certainly helps. But it's always tough to have work-life balance, and we certainly try. I work more than I probably should; it's just what we do."
For those who encounter Hirschl and wish to avoid the perils of the "You-seem-so-normal-for-a-neurosurgeon" conversation, try this: Last year, before he left Iowa and at the urging of his friend and colleague Pat Hood, Hirschl skydived. He's glad he did it, but he won't do it again.
"Once was enough," he said.