A Look Inside the Mind of a Brain Surgeon

A Look Inside the Mind of a Brain Surgeon

Q & A with Walter Jean, MD

What drew you to medicine and neurosurgery?

A: Neurosurgery is a field that attracts people who like tough challenges. It is emotionally taxing because procedures have high stakes for the patients. It is technically challenging because neurosurgeons work in a very small place inside the skull. But we have the ability to make people who are really sick better and significantly improve each patient’s experience. It is a rewarding field.

What is extended reality and why do you use it for brain surgery?

A: Extended reality (XR) is a term that encompasses virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and artificial intelligence (AI). LVHN is the only health network in the state that uses XR for brain surgery. It acts as a GPS (Global Positioning System) for the procedure. Patients can place a headset over their eyes to be transported to a virtual replica of their own brain. This helps them gain a better understanding of their upcoming procedure. Surgeons use the technology to find the best approach for surgery and to have “X-ray” vision during surgery.

Just as everyone has moved from printed maps to GPS navigation – once surgeons recognize the benefits of XR technology, they never operate without it. Once I started working with XR, I wondered what else it could do. In my search, I came to discover a lot of applications that the inventors of the machine didn’t consider.

Why did you choose to come to the Lehigh Valley and what are you looking forward to offering patients here?

A: It is very easy for people in our community to believe that they have to travel to New York City or Philadelphia to get brain surgery, when in fact, having surgery away from home can create a lot of problems unrelated to the technical aspects of surgery itself. It can heavily influence recovery and returning to “normal” life. LVHN has the best nursing, equipment, and physicians for complex brain surgery and proximity to home makes it easier on the recovery process. People can return to normal life after brain surgery and the recovery is as important as the surgery itself.

LVHN already had a program that offered patients exceptional care. I want to offer patients the best neurosurgical care on the planet, and the “raw materials” to build a galaxy-class program are all here. Like a major league baseball team, the program I want to build will need specialists to cover all the “bases.” The same specialists will also need the best equipment to make the most out of their special skills. I’m excited to bring all of that here to the Lehigh Valley.

What is an aspect of your job that people may not know about?

A: Teaching the next generation of neurosurgeons: the skills they need to have, the facts they need to learn but most importantly, the decision-making process, so that their plans make sense. This applies to surgery as a technical exercise, as well as the overall treatment plans that influence the patient. This was the motivation of writing my textbook, “Skull base Surgery: Strategies.”


Virtual reality (VR) allows everyday people to fly to new lands in video games. Augmented reality (AR) takes fighter pilots through scenarios training them for the unexpected. Artificial Intelligence (AI) predicts what people will write in texts before they’ve completed a sentence. Extended reality (XR) is an overarching term for all three of these technologies. And now brain surgeons and patients also can use XR to fly through the brain. Why is this so important? If you find yourself in need of complex brain surgery, not only can you better visualize your upcoming procedure, your surgeon also gains additional insight. Walter Jean, MD, Lehigh Valley Health Network Chief of Neurosurgery, is the only physician in the area using this groundbreaking technology.

Helping patients visualize their brain

“We meet hundreds of patients and explain to them our surgical plan. That communication can be difficult at times,” Jean says. “Once we have a patient’s brain scans loaded into the augmented reality software, they have the ability to see their own anatomy to gain a better understanding.” When patients place the headset over their eyes, they are transported to a virtual replica of their own brain. This technology, called Surgical Theater®, allows them to feel as though they are flying through their own anatomy. The experience offers a visual explanation that often is easier to understand than medical terminology.

Creating a plan of attack

The second benefit of Surgical Theater® is that it allows brain surgeons to create a surgery plan by simulating different scenarios to find the best approach. “The genesis of the technology is from air fighter pilots. The founders of the company discovered they could use the same technology in the medical field,” Jean says. Just like fighter pilots, brain surgeons are able to practice unique scenarios to be fully prepared for their mission.

X-ray vision

By now, you are probably imagining XR as superhero powers that assist a hero in doing important work. If that image hadn’t come to mind yet, X-ray vision should seal the deal. Extended reality allows surgeons to operate with “X-ray” vision to reach their targets safely and to stay out of danger by avoiding critical “no-fly” zones in the brain. “Every patient’s problem is unique. We design the surgical approach for every operation to fit the individual’s problem,” Jean says.

About Walter Jean, MD

Jean joined Lehigh Valley Health Network in February. He is a board-certified neurosurgeon with expertise in complex intracranial surgery. Jean is known worldwide for his expertise in complex brain surgery. His acclaimed textbook, “Skull Base Surgery: Strategies,” is used by neurosurgeons across the globe to learn about open and endoscopic skull base surgery. As a pioneer, Jean utilizes virtual reality in neurosurgery and brings this revolutionary technology to the Lehigh Valley.

Learn more about Jean at LVHN.org/WCJean.

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