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SUNDAY PROFILE : The Brain Trust : He has been called 'brilliant,' a 'superstar,' even a god. Neurosurgeon Keith Black is zeroing in on a way to zap malignant tumors.

May 28, 1995|EDWARD J. BOYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The letter, in slightly awkward English, came from Dortmund, Germany, typical of dozens UCLA neurosur geon Keith L. Black receives from around the world each year:

*

My husband . . . is suffering since 10 months from a malign tumor in the right hemisphere of his brain. As I trust and hope that you will be able to cure this tumor with your new medical technique, I look forward to receiving your advice.

*

Black knows intimately the devastation brain tumors wreak on patients and their families.

"I think a malignant brain tumor is the worst disease you can have," he says. "A tumor can strike you in the prime of your life. You're healthy, you're thriving, but you lose the things that make you human, that make you the person you are. Your personality isn't the same. You lose the ability to understand your environment, to even manipulate language."

He picks up a glass of water, slowly turning it in his hand.

"To be able to use your physical ability to pick up this glass of water, but to not know what it is . . . I cannot think of a worse tragedy that can happen to you."

The UCLA School of Medicine recruited Black, 37, just more than seven yearsago from the University of Michigan to lead its efforts to relieve that tragedy--to build a brain tumor program where none had existed.

"His contribution is spectacular," says Dr. Donald Becker, UCLA's chief of neurosurgery, who co-directs the program with Black. "He has exceeded all expectations. He's a superstar in our field."

Others echo that assessment: One patient calls him "a miracle worker," a colleague calls him "a brilliant surgeon," and a UCLA staffer treads to the threshold of blasphemy, whispering: "He's a god."

And those familiar with his flying, sky-diving, scuba-diving, mountain climbing and white-water rafting only half-jokingly call him "Indiana Black," a nod to the swashbuckling adventurer within the compassionate healer.

Tramping through freezing Himalayan streams and plucking leeches from his sodden feet were once as irresistible to Black as his work developing techniques to deliver higher concentrations of drugs to a tumor. Plunging into a South Asian jungle aboard an elephant or watching a meteor light up the sky from atop Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro touched an important corner of his psyche.

"My basic philosophy ever since high school has been that I want to have as many experiences in life as I can," Black says. "I wanted to be able to incorporate into my way of thinking all the knowledge I could acquire."

But three years ago, he put aside jumping out of airplanes and dodging avalanches. "I felt I owed it to my kids to not do that anymore," he says. So he now focuses on sailing with his wife, Dr. Carol Bennett, a urologist at USC's medical school, their 6-year-old daughter, Teal, and son, Keith, 4.

"A couple of years ago, we never saw each other," says Bennett, who met Black during her residency at the University of Michigan.

Weekends are now jealously guarded "family time," devoted to exploring museums and bookstores or just enjoying their Bel-Air home on a ridge above the new Getty Center. They have spent carefully planned summer vacations sailing the Caribbean and will take time off this year to sail in the South Pacific with their children.

Sitting at the dining room table on a recent afternoon, Bennett kids her husband about working on the affluent Westside while she goes "Downtown, where the real people are. I make the commute. He runs down the hill."

At work in the operating rooms in the bowels of UCLA Medical Center, Black has become what is known in sports jargon as the "go to guy," the clutch player to whom other neurosurgeons send their toughest cases.

"Guys with big reputations usually can't do surgery worth a damn because they got those reputations by writing a lot of journal articles," says Dr. James Ditchick, 40, an Encino anesthesiologist whose tumor Black removed four years ago. "Keith walks the walk. He's doing these surgeries every day. That's why he's as good as he is."

Rosemarie Rabin Epstein went to Black last year in a wheelchair, which was the result, she says, of steroids prescribed after brain surgery three years ago. She had lost the use of her right leg and the peripheral vision on her right side.

"Dr. Black, to me, was a miracle worker," says Epstein, 71, an environmental planner from Marina del Rey. "I had been everywhere with this thing, and he was able to do what several doctors could not. He brought me from the jaws of death and gave me back a life almost like the one I had."

Dr. Jack Barchas, formerly dean of research and neuroscience at UCLA School of Medicine, calls Black a "brilliant surgeon with extraordinary compassion."

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