All the World’s a Stage for N.Y. Neurosurgeon

Imagine that you just had a rare percutaneous spine fusion surgery, and your neurosurgeon, who flawlessly performed the surgery, also designed and patented the instruments he used. Now, as you drive home, you see his name in lights on a billboard for a show at the local county playhouse.
Sounds crazy, yes? But it’s all possible if your neurosurgeon was Ezriel Kornel, MD, FACS. That’s because Kornel, who is a principal of Brain & Spine Surgeons of New York, as well as the director of the Institute for Neurosciences at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, NY, has a passion for the arts — in particular, acting, music and poetry.
“In college I was seriously looking at majoring in music and going into conducting, but I chickened out,” Kornel admits. “I felt like I couldn’t be certain that as a conductor I could reach the top of my field, but I had a sense that as a physician, I could. And I knew that I could always do music; but if I chose [a career in] music, I would never do medicine.”
On the radio
Kornel began addressing his passions when he started hosting the radio program Back Talk Live, which was heard on WOR-AM on Sunday evenings for two years before being upgraded to its current status as a Web TV series. For Kornel, it was just an extension of what he was already doing in his daily practice.
“I had done interviews both on the radio and TV a number of times, and I enjoyed the process,” Kornel says. “I enjoyed the communication. If you’re uncomfortable, it comes across right away. I spend a lot of time in my office with my patients because they deserve it, and I enjoy it. So this is an extension of that. I’m basically talking to my patients, but a larger group at a time.”
The rationale for launching the program was simple. Kornel found that many of his patients came to him having already seen a number of other physicians. And yet they were not as well informed of their health problems as they could or should have been.
“I thought, if people would better understand their problems from the onset they could get better care more quickly, and wouldn’t be wasting their time for weeks, months, sometimes years before getting the proper treatment,” Kornel explains. “You don’t have to teach patients the textbook of spine physiology and anatomy in order for them to understand what’s going on. So that was the impetus for wanting to reach a wider array of individuals.”
The bright lights
Kornel recalls how, as adolescents, he and his brother would write plays and perform them for their parents. In school, he was always eager to have a part in a play. Then his passion suddenly disappeared one very tragic day in American history.
“The last play in school that I did was the day that John Kennedy was assassinated,” Kornel recalls. “The day started with such elation, and I was so thrilled to be on stage doing this school play, it was about as happy as I could be. And then suddenly it was this horrible, tragic day. And I think that somehow I equated the two.”
That stayed with Kornel until about 17 years ago when, while taking a personal development course, the instructor asked, “What do you want to do?” Without hesitation, Kornel answered, “I want to act.”
He began taking acting classes, and was soon appearing in full theatre productions with students who aspired to become professional actors. He quickly realized, however, that the only way he could continue to do these productions without giving up his medical career was to do them on his schedule.
“And the only way I could do it on my schedule was if I was the producer,” he laughs. Shortly thereafter he formed Synaptic Productions.
“I had come to recognize that, especially in places like New York where there is so much talent, that I could act, not necessarily professionally, but enough to get gratification out of it without doing it professionally,” Kornel continues. “And so that’s what I did. But I can only do it once every three years or so, because it’s very time demanding once you start the process.”
Time to spare
Somehow, though, Kornel has found the time to involve all his passions in his life. He has received two patents for designing and developing neurosurgical tools, and is currently working on a few others. One of the patents is for a system to allow for a type of percutaneous spine fusion.
“What that means is being able to fuse the spine in a certain way with a very small incision; just going through the skin without having to divide a lot of tissue,” Kornel explains. “Lumbar fusions are a mainstay of spine surgery for people who have severe, degenerative spine disorders. And what we’ve gravitated towards is the minimal access approach when possible, percutaneous approaches. So I developed a set of tools that allow surgeons to do this procedure, and I’m in the process of speaking to different instrumentation companies about getting it out to them.”
Somewhere along the way Kornel also found the time to train for and run a New York City Marathon. Initially, he prepped for it to accompany his wife, a former marathoner who wanted to return to the competition following a car accident.
“If you made a list of things you want to do, and then things you don’t want to do, the thing on the bottom of the list of what I don’t want to do would be to run a marathon,” Kornel says. “But I found that I got tremendous satisfaction from it. Sometimes, you don’t know what you like until you do it.”
One thing Kornel does know is that he has been extremely blessed to be able to build a successful career in medicine while still enjoying the many other passions in his life.
“I have no regrets,” he says. “It’s just extremely gratifying that I am able to pursue all these things.”