Robert Masson, MD, Neurosurgeon, Orlando Health
It might seem like a play on words to describe a race-car-driving neurosurgeon as driven. But in the case of Robert Masson, MD, founder of the Masson Spine Institute and Director of the Orlando Health - Health Central Hospital JCAHO accredited Spine Center of Excellence, it is also true. Masson, in addition to leading a revolution in the treatment of spinal cord injuries fills his spare time with extreme adventures, like driving a race car to the winners' circle at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona with his oldest son or taking a helicopter to remote slopes in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah in order to ski down the purest powder snow possible.
"I've always led a very physical life," said Masson.
"Performance across the board has always been a passion. I love sports. I love competition. I love pushing myself. It's a joy and an obsession."
Masson grew up in Los Angeles, dreaming of becoming an astronaut. He had a single mother, four younger siblings and a lot of determination. "I loved science and math. I reasoned that if I did well, if I played sports and did well academically, I could add value as a bio-medical mission specialist."
He entered the University of Florida with plans to play quarterback for Charlie Pell's 'Gators. But after sustaining his fifth concussion by his sophomore year, and winning admission to Florida's BS MD program, Masson decided on a different path: neurosurgery.
He liked everything about neurosurgery. "To me it's the Holy Grail of human biology," he said. "The neuroscience, the combination of intelligence, artificial intelligence, extreme performance. It's the black box of understanding. Even to this day, it is still the organ that we know the least about. It was limitless to me. 'Limitless' is a big word in my family. Infinite room for advancement and improvement. I was just fascinated by it."
The seven-year training program Masson entered placed him at the leading edge of the evolving specialty of microneurosurgery, which uses microscopes and miniaturized precision tools to perform intricate procedures, primarily in the brain. Leading this program was Albert Rhoton, MD, an internationally renowned surgeon who developed UF's program into one of the best in the world. He became Masson's mentor and role model.
"He was an unbelievably demanding person, but he lived up to his demands. He was easy to respect. It was different era," said Masson, describing the grueling program. "For five of the seven years we were on house call every other night. We didn't have protective hours-per-week guidelines. We worked 120 to 130 hours per week. We'd go in at 5:30 in the morning one day and out at 8:30 at night the next day, and then back at 5:30 the next day. It was exhausting and stressful, but the benefit is the experiential aspect, the independence, autonomy and decision-making. We developed a very high level of technical performance, because we were immersed. And I do believe in immersion to develop mastery."
Fresh out of his medical training, Masson led a team of 100 physicians in a new neurosurgery department in Olympia, Washington. "I am definitely someone who is always seeking out roles like that," he said. "Every step of my path is always aiming toward leadership in some way."
In 1999, fed up with the Northwest's penchant for rain, Masson and his family returned to Florida, joining the Orlando Health team. "I came to Orlando to do microneurosurgery," he said. But he noticed a need in spine surgery. "Brain surgery was being done at one level, and spine surgery was being done at a much lower level," he said. "I started applying higher technology microsurgery more aggressively toward spinal reconstruction. I was doing some things in spine surgery that in the early 2000s were really unique."
By 2003, Masson was focused entirely on spine surgery. He founded the Masson Spine Institute and now heads up the Spine Center of Excellence at Orlando Health's Health Central Hospital.
Now, Masson is an international educator in complex lumbar spine reconstruction, microsurgical reconstruction and cervical arthroplasty. He has developed techniques and products for two of the world's top spine companies, which produce advanced products for minimally invasive spinal reconstruction.
If you ask him for high-points in his career, he pointedly responds: "I don't focus on milestones, I focus on relentless forward progress. I will say, however, that my greatest professional joy is turning Health Central into a destination. We brought several hundred surgeons to a small hospital in West Orlando over the last 15 years and turned it into a place where we receive world class surgeons for training and patients from around the world, and we have the data to turn it into a Center of Excellence, certified by JCAHO (Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations)."
One accomplishment that Dr. Masson is perhaps proudest of has nothing to do with surgery. It has everything to do with his family. About five years ago, Masson realized he didn't know Kyle, the oldest of his five children, as well as he felt he should.
"When I was a young neurosurgeon, I was on call all the time," said Masson. Kyle wanted to pursue a dream of becoming a race-car driver. So, Masson chaperoned him to racing school, "and I was immediately destroyed (on the track) by my 16-year-old." Kyle and his dad soon formed a racing team, competing around the country. Now Kyle has won in his class at the famous 12-hour endurance race at Sebring, and the two stood together on the podium this winter at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.
"I was able to reclaim a relationship with Kyle through this amazing journey. It's been absolutely priceless to me and my family."