ORLANDO - Meld the fictional characters from the television show Doogie Howser, MD and the movie Top Gun and you’ll have a peek into the non-fiction narrative of Todd Maugans’ life.
Maugans, chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Nemours Children’s Hospital at Lake Nona, grew up in Marysville, Pa., the third of three brothers born to parents who owned a furniture-making and upholstery business. As a youngster, he thought he would become a pastor. “Then I had a dream that I had done that, died and went to heaven and I tended sheep … forever. I gave up that thought the morning after,” he said. Not long after his nocturnal epiphany, Maugans “became fascinated with the human body and decided to pursue a career in medicine,” he said. “I was strongly influenced by the family doctor … and I also had a close teacher friend who shaped my academic path and helped me get into college — when I was 15!”
The gifted teenager matriculated at Simon’s Rock College in Barrington, Mass., after 10th grade, becoming the first in his family to attend college. But when he started applying to medical schools, the 19-year-old had trouble getting interviews because of his age. “But when I did interview, my uniqueness was seen as an advantage,” said Maugans, who eventually was accepted and earned his MD at Temple University in Philadelphia.
But Maugans was undecided about his specialty. “I was pulled between family medicine and pediatric neurosurgery,” he said, so he decided to do both. A residency in general surgery in New Hampshire was followed by a residency in neurological surgery in Virginia, and then a residency in family practice in Vermont. After alternating between specialties for a total of seven years, he coupled his passions and accepted a clinical fellowship in pediatric neurosurgery at Los Angeles Children’s Hospital in 1997. Since then, his career has taken him from California, back to Vermont and then to Ohio, which was his last stop before arriving at Nemours in 2012.
Having been board certified as a practitioner and teacher in both specialties has given Maugans a rare perspective, he said. “It is fascinating to have delivered babies and also to have performed brain surgery on babies. The family practice was special preparation for what I’m doing now. It differentiates me from most, if not all, pediatric neurosurgeons that I have this extensive experience in primary care. The two greatest advantages of that are that one, I know what a difficult job primary care doctors have in sorting out difficult patients and referring patients appropriately,” said Maugans, 54. “The second is the whole patient experience. In pediatric neurosurgery we mostly take care of kids with chronic problems who will need years of care and follow-up. You need to have an appreciation for the complexities of their lives and you have to have a heart for it. I think my family practice experience prepared me well to do good things in this regard,” he said.
Maugans said he was attracted to Nemours because it was “an opportunity to build something exactly as I would love to see it built, and to be involved with an organization that has such an incredible philosophy and credo. It’s not just lip service here; Nemours truly does place patients and families above all in everything we do,” he said.
Maugans said he is in surgery a couple of days a week and sees patients in clinic for most of the other three, with administrative work here and there. “I came here to build new relationships and create new opportunities for patients and for providers. I really try to reach out to the broad medical community, whether they work for Orlando Health, Florida Hospital or someone else,” he said.
That collaboration is evident in Maugans’ creation and oversight of the Nemours Comprehensive Concussion Care Center. Other hospitals have concussion care centers, he said, but his is the only one that is pediatrics specific.
Maugans also has an extensive background in craniofacial surgery, helping children with skull deformities. “I work hand-in-hand with Dr. Ramon Ruiz (MD and DMD) at Arnold Palmer Children’s Hospital. We make a fantastic team,” he said, adding that he dreams of creating “a national, if not an international, center for doing that work. We could do it in Orlando. There’s only one really robust craniofacial program and it’s in Dallas.” Maugans said, “The concept of medical tourism would be very applicable. We easily could attract people from Central America, South America and Europe. We could do world-class work right here,” he said.
As busy as Maugans is, he has always found inventive ways (pay attention fans of “Maverick” in Top Guns!) to feed … a need … for speed.
When he was practicing in Vermont, Maugans spent a decade as the senior flight surgeon for a squadron of F-16 fighter pilots in the Air Force Reserve. Having less-than-perfect vision prevented him from being a pilot, but Maugans said by the time he retired as a lieutenant colonel he had logged many hours in the two-seater training jets and availed himself of every opportunity to take the controls while soaring above the mountainous New England landscape. His call sign while flying? Doogie.
Maugans still has his private pilot license, but hasn’t flown since his wife Karen, a professional photographer he met in Vermont, gave birth to their daughter Ayla, now 15. But Maugans’ appetite for seeking thrills returned about a year ago when a physician assistant at Nemours invited him to the Daytona 200 motorcycle race. “I had never seen motorcycles perform like that. Two days later I got my motorcycle endorsement. One week later I bought my first motorcycle. Two months later I bought my second motorcycle. One for the road and one for the track,” said Maugans.
“I’m very new to the sport, but I’ve experienced a kind of exponential rise in terms of interest. I’ve tried to become very skilled very quickly. It all comes from the perspective of safety. They are incredibly fun vehicles, but obviously there is a lot of inherent danger,” he said.
“It’s almost an oxymoron to say you’re a brain surgeon who rides a motorcycle. I have taken care of a lot of patients who have not ridden safely on their bikes,” said Maugans. That’s why he invests in the most modern safety gear for riding his BMW to the hospital, and while racing his Kawasaki on professional tracks where he sometimes clocks straightaway speeds of 160 mph.
Maugans understands the correlation between his professional and personal pursuits. “That’s one of the things I really like about riding. It is very much like surgery. You are just hyper-focused. It’s like there is nothing in the world around you other than what you are doing,” he said.
“I think I’m not too atypical for a lot of doctors, especially surgeons. We’re addicted to adrenalin in the operating room and the things we do in our personal lives. It’s just very exciting. I think life should be full of contrasts. Play it safe, but have awesome fun,” he said.