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By Janet Hosey
As a child, Russ Nockels, MD, believed he would grow up to become a Chicago firefighter.
While he didn’t end up in the fire station, he still followed a path that would change people’s lives, including his own.
He found familiar subjects — art, construction, biology and the mystery of the human nervous system — intersected at the core of a deeply fascinating career that he can’t wait to get to each day.
For more than 30 years, Dr. Nockels, a board-certified neurological surgeon who specializes in spine surgery, has dedicated himself to providing exceptional care to patients of all ages with spinal disorders, ranging from routine to complex cases, and has performed over 10,000 surgeries.
Now Dr. Nockels is bringing his expertise and the latest advancements in spine surgery innovation to the NorthShore Neurological Institute (NNI) at Northwest Community Healthcare (NCH) in Arlington Heights.
“In the realm of very strong specializations like the neurosciences, it’s important to note that world-class expertise and opportunities for research and education extend beyond the boundaries of academic institutions alone,” Dr. Nockels said. “The culture of the neurosciences department at NCH is what attracted me – the cohesiveness among its people who are working toward the same goal of unwavering focus and excellence in patient care. It’s their primary intent and the support they give one another ensures compassionate service for each patient. This instills a profound sense of joy and purpose in their work.”
From a family of firefighters to the medical field
His journey to medicine began with a disappointment.
The Nockels were a Chicago Fire Department family, with many members serving in the department. Yet his family wanted something different for him.
“I was told by my firefighter family at age 11 that I couldn’t be a firefighter,” Dr. Nockels said. “My father always considered it a dangerous job.”
Years later, his father, Capt. Daniel Nockels, died, while on duty, in an arson fire.
While Dr. Nockels was a student at St. Patrick High School in Chicago, a “phenomenal” biology teacher opened the door to an intriguing new world for him. Despite his aversion to doctors, who he associated with painful shots, Dr. Nockels began to consider medical school.
At age 18, Dr. Nockels formed a construction company with his brother to make money for college expenses.
“We’d hire off-duty firefighters and got contracts with hotels in the area. The construction work was a basis for the things I do now professionally, as many of the surgeries involve reconstruction.”
While in college at Loyola University in Chicago, Dr. Nockels got a job as a technician taking patients’ vitals in the emergency department of the medical center.
“I loved it. Being able to take care of people, and caring for them in an intellectual way was wonderful,” Dr. Nockels said.
He went to medical school at Loyola Stritch School of Medicine, where he carried out research on the central nervous system and decided to become a neurosurgeon focused on the subspecialty of spine surgery.
“The first time I put my hands in someone’s body, I was hooked,” Dr. Nockels said. “I had worked with my hands my whole life. And the thought that you could go into someone’s body and fix them, to me still is like going to Mars.
“Life is so precious. And there’s nothing more precious in life than the function of our nervous system. To be able to modify that in any way for the benefit of an individual … I’m still hooked.”
Spine surgeries that stand out
After medical school, Dr. Nockels completed a residency in neurosurgery at New York University Medical Center and Bellevue Hospital and was an Honorary House Officer at the Queen’s Square Hospital for Nervous System Diseases in London.
In the 1990s Dr. Nockels served as the team physician and spine consultant for the Detroit Lions and Detroit Redwings.
In 1997, Detroit Lions linebacker Reggie Brown was paralyzed on the field after a hit that damaged his spinal cord. A headline at the time said he may never walk again. Dr. Nockels was one of the physicians who operated on Brown, after which he regained his ability to walk.
“He recovered extremely well. It was a rewarding experience serving as the team physician, and the most rewarding case was Reggie Brown.”
Several years ago, Dr. Nockels cared for craniopagus conjoined twins (two girls joined at the head). One twin broke her neck and was paralyzed as they played in the waves on a Florida beach. Dr. Nockels was a surgeon tasked with treating the injury.
“If one twin died, the other would die,” Dr. Nockels said, who was able to repair the girl’s spine in high-stakes surgeries. “They’re both walking now and going to college. They’re darling. They’re so fun and they’re delightful.”
Partnering with patients toward a common goal
When he’s not in the operating room, Dr. Nockels may be in his art studio.
“I paint a lot, although I’m keeping my day job,” he said. Painting, which is both a stress reliever and simply an enjoyable hobby, is something he learned from his dad.
Art appreciation lends itself to seeing patients and surgical procedures in a different way, he said. “There’s an aesthetic sense of anatomy,” he said. “Art helps me.”
Each day he goes into work, Dr. Nockels strives to understand where his patients are coming from and work toward a common goal of wellness.
“When I was 8 years old, I remember walking to school one day and it was freezing. The wind was terrible. I remember thinking, ‘How bad would it be if I didn’t feel the cold?’ If you couldn’t feel heat or cold?” he said. “It’s a precious feeling. We see patients who would give anything to be able to feel cold.”
At the center of his work is the understanding that he wants the same thing as his patients.
“My patients cannot feel like there’s any other agenda or that I have anything but their best interest at heart,” he said. “Every patient is different, but they’re all scared. We operate on them, manipulate their nervous system, and they trust us to do this. It’s an honor to have that sacred trust from somebody.
“Every day I try to be a better surgeon so the next patient will have the benefit of my cumulative experience.”
Dr. Nockels’ clinical and basic research has culminated in over 70 publications and over 150 presentations, as well as presiding as chair of several spinal surgery courses worldwide.
He was principal investigator of clinical trials in the treatment of spinal cord injury and has a funded basic science laboratory exploring Activity Dependent Plasticity following experimental stroke and spinal cord injury. He also led the discovery and clinical application of innovative spinal implants that have been used successfully on a global basis.
Dr. Nockels is accepting new patients. To make an appointment or refer a patient, please call NNI at NCH in Arlington Heights at 847.618.4430 or visit us online at nni-nch.org to learn more.