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Focus on Gregory Zipfel, MD

Neurosurgeon and Red Bud, Illinois native, Gregory Zipfel, MD, says Washington University is one of the leaders in the field for using the new, less invasive, endoscopic approaches to remove pituitary tumors and other tumors of the skull base.

Dr. Zipfel is an assistant professor of neurosurgery and neurology. His areas of specialty include brain aneurysms, vascular malformations, stroke, brain tumors, pituitary tumors, and skull base tumors.

Patient are seen at the Center for Advance Medicine, 4921 Parkview Place, 6th floor, suite C.


Why did you choose neurosurgery as your specialty?

During the first year of medical school in Chicago, I discovered I liked anatomy and the other hands-on classes. I quickly realized that a surgery specialty was something I would be interested in.

My neurosurgery service rotation was the first time I saw brain tumors removed and aneurysms clipped. The intricacy of the brain’s anatomy and the intensity of taking care of patients with serious diseases was what attracted me to this field. It became clear that this was the area for me.

You did your post-graduate study in Florida, what brought you to Washington University?

It was a pretty easy decision. Coming out of training, I knew I wanted to be involved in academic medicine and research, as well as taking care of patients with neurosurgical diseases. At that time, Washington University had the perfect position for me. It combined a focused clinical practice on patients who have vascular disease of the brain, along with ample time to do high level research in an environment that has an extraordinary breadth of expertise.

During my residency and fellowship training in Florida, I took two years off and did research here at Washington University. During that time I got to know Dr. Ralph Dacey, the current chairman of neurological surgery. My mentor from Florida spoke very highly of Washington University and Dr. Dacey. So my experience here, along with the recommendation of my mentor, made it clear that this was the right place for me.

In addition, I’m from the Midwest, so coming back and being closer to my family and friends made it extra nice.

Which aspect of your practice is most interesting?

What I find interesting is that I get to take care of patients with serious diseases and help them and their families through trying times. I’m also very motivated in the lab with my research to understand diseases and develop new treatments for improved patient care and better outcomes.

The combination of seeing patients on a day-to-day basis, along with my research, is what I like most about my current practice.
Dr. Gregory Zipfel and family

What new developments in your field are you most excited about?

One new development I am most excited about is that we’ve been moving towards less invasive surgical procedures for removal of certain types of tumors -- like pituitary tumors and other tumors of the skull base. We’re using endoscopic approaches where a small camera is inserted into the nostril. The surgery is performed in the back of the nose, exposing and ultimately removing the tumor. Previously, this surgery would have meant an incision in the face or under the lip, followed with a one week hospitalization and several weeks of recovery.

The endoscopic approach allows patients to go home in two days and be back to work within a week or two of their procedure. This is not something that would have been possible five or ten years ago. Washington University is one of the leaders in this endoscopic minimally invasive approach.

Another important development is the intra-operative MRI that was installed here in the spring of 2008. It allows us to perform surgery in a more effective way. We are able to remove a tumor, and without leaving the operating room, use the MRI to show us if there is any tumor remaining. If there is, we can immediately remove the rest of it. It’s exciting to have that kind of technology here, because there are very few places throughout the country that do.

Where are you from originally?

I grew up in Peoria, Illinois. My dad is from a small town in southern Illinois called Red Bud, which is about an hour from here. Because I have ties in the St. Louis area, it’s nice to be closer to home with my parents, sisters and extended family in the Red Bud area.

There are a lot of Zipfels in the southern Illinois area (it’s an unusual name) and I’ll see patients in the hospital or in clinic who recognize my name. They’ll ask me if I’m from here and we discover that they know my grandfather, father or a cousin. I think it puts them at ease knowing I have roots in their area. I had one 65-year-old patient whose very first job, at age 16, was working for my grandfather’s feed store in Red Bud. It’s not something I expected, but it is a nice part of practicing here.

Is there a particular award or achievement that is most gratifying?

One thing I am proud of is that I was recently named Associate Program Director for our residency. I’ve always enjoyed education and had an inclination towards teaching – my parents are both teachers. Being able to mentor young residents and neurosurgeons as they’re preparing for their own careers is very gratifying. I realize how important my mentors and other people have been to my own career and I’m fortunate to have the opportunity now to be able to help our current residents.

What do you do when you’re not working?

I try to spend as much of my non-medical time with my family as possible. I’m married and have two young children – a daughter and son. We enjoy riding our bikes in Forest Park and having lunch at The Boathouse. I also like various forms of exercise including running, biking, and playing golf.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

I think physicians, in particular, get too focused on career objectives or other goals they would like to accomplish. Probably some of the best advice was from one of my mentors who told me to “make sure to enjoy the ride – look to the left, look to the right and don’t always have your sights set ahead ten years. Enjoy each day.”
Is there a lifestyle change that could most benefit our health?

One of my areas of specialty is vascular and the risk of brain aneurysms, strokes, and other vascular diseases of the brain are greater in people who smoke. Therefore, the lifestyle change I talk to my patients most about is smoking cessation. When I’m treating someone who has had a stroke or a brain aneurysm, stopping smoking is probably the best thing they can do for themselves -- it is number one on my list.
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Copyright 2015 Washington University School of Medicine
Copyright 2015 Washington University School of Medicine