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THOMAS FARRAGHER

Children’s Hospital surgeon mixes humor, healing

Patient Wyatt Schlaht, 14, with Dr. Al Cohen at a follow-up visit after surgery.
Patient Wyatt Schlaht, 14, with Dr. Al Cohen at a follow-up visit after surgery.(Boston Children’s Hospital)

As a 10-year-old patient lay on the table in operating room 25 at Boston Children’s Hospital on Thursday morning, the irrepressible voice of the Godfather of Soul rose from a boom-box in the corner and sublimely described the chief surgeon’s state of mind.

“The tumor should be coming out now because ‘I Feel Good’ is on,’’ Dr. Alan R. Cohen, his hips swiveling, announced to a roomful of medical professionals who knew full well they were not in the presence of just any brain surgeon.

Let’s put it this way: Look up brain surgeon in the dictionary and a picture of Dr. Cohen — known universally to his little patients as Big Al — is not there.

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Yes, the guy has degrees from Harvard and Cornell, honorary degrees from around the world, and enough medical society honors to plaster many walls. A master at minimally invasive neurosurgery, he’s Children’s Hospital’s neurosurgeon-in-chief. In other words, he leads the biggest and best team of pediatric brain surgeons in the world.

But he’s also the guy who sings along with James Brown and impersonates Elvis. He leavens dense medical society lectures with pictures of Moe, Larry, and Curly. He once hysterically substituted the lyrics of a Gilbert and Sullivan song with obscure names for various parts of the brain. His medical students could skip the final exam if they could master it. None did.

“Brain surgery is a pretty intense thing,’’ he said. “If you can relax the kid, you help the parents.’’

The most treasured part of his office wall is not those framed eminent degrees, but messages kids have scrawled in pencil and crayon. “Dear Big Al, Thank you for saving life. You are my hero,’’ one says. Another: “Dear Big Al, Thank you for taking my tumor out! I feel great!’’

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Those testimonials are part of the reason patients from around the globe find their way to Children’s Hospital. When the family of his 10-year-old patient this week, Diego Preciado, looked from their home in the Netherlands for the best surgeon to remove a tumor that had quickly doubled in size, they found their way to Cohen.

“We know we are in good hands,’’ Diego’s father, Gabriel, told me just before his son was wheeled into surgery early Thursday.

Candace and Keith Schlaht of Wellesley know that, too. Their 14-year-old son Wyatt, a nationally acclaimed hockey star, was on his way to practice in February, when Wyatt’s left arm locked up in an odd, 90-degree angle. He went into an epileptic seizure. And, presently, into the same operating room where Diego lay this week.

“I just remember looking at the MRI and thinking, ‘Is that mass as large as it appears to be?’ ’’ Candace said.

Wyatt had a malformation in the brain’s right frontal lobe, essentially a cluster of blood vessels that had begun to bleed. Paralysis was possible.

Cohen, assisted then as he was this week by Dr. Kristopher Kahle, a neurosurgical fellow Cohen calls a “superstar,’’ went to work on a sensitive area of Wyatt’s brain. “We knew going in that there was a risk of making him worse,’’ Cohen said.

But the family in the waiting room and the patient on the table had supreme confidence in the man wielding the scalpel. “He was in no rush to go in there and start chopping me up,’’ said Wyatt, now fully recovered.

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Seven hours after he went into surgery, Wyatt’s family saw him in the ICU. They had heard Dr. Cohen’s sweet medical verdict: “Your son has one of the thickest skulls I’ve ever cut into and that’s pretty good for a hockey player,’’ Candace Schlaht recalled.

Diego’s mom and dad got similar great news early Thursday afternoon.

“It’s a benign tumor and it’s not cancer and we got it all out,’’ Cohen told Diego’s mom, Luz, as tears rolled down her cheeks.

Minutes later, Diego lay in his ICU bed. Big Al asked him to move his arms and his legs and to speak. He did. Then the little boy flashed Al Cohen a sign that never grows old. Thumbs up.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FarragherTom.