''You wouldn't want me to be late for the man who saved my life, would you?"
My 13-year-old son, Eli, puckishly smiled, urging my wife, Laurette, and me into the car. Six years ago on a clear night in January, a compact fellow with confident hands had sliced out a tumor and a cyst--together the size of a tennis ball--from Eli's brain. Now, on a recent Saturday evening, we were heading for dinner with Jorge Antonio Lazareff, the UCLA pediatric neurosurgeon who had operated on Eli.
Since that time, much had happened. In addition to a deep bond that had developed between my family and the doctor, Lazareff had become world famous. In 2002 at UCLA Medical Center, he separated conjoined twin girls from Guatemala. The nearly 23-hour procedure proved both intellectually and physically demanding, in the end consuming some 50 UCLA staff members and costing more than $1.5 million. But as Lazareff remarked soon after its success: "There will be two passports, two boyfriends, two weddings."
The subsequent media attention turned Lazareff, then a year shy of 50, into a celebrity--a secular saint whom everyone adored. This was underscored by Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao, who, while dropping in on the newly twained twins, told the medical team, "The nation is spellbound by what you've done." In fact, this sentiment resonated worldwide.
Now, nearly a year and a half since Maria Teresa and Maria de Jesus Quiej Alvarez were granted two lives, Lazareff is spearheading a worldwide nonprofit organization, Global Neuro Rescue, which helps youngsters who suffer from debilitating neurological diseases. Lazareff cites a recent report by the Institute of Medicine--a private research and advisory arm of the National Academy of Sciences--which found neurological disorders accounting for 15% of the total disease burden in the world's poorest nations, while less than 1% of global health funding goes toward these often treatable conditions. For Lazareff, medicine's lasting legacy is not as an academic science but as a social force for healing. As the proverb goes, "Con virtud y bondad se adquiere autoridad," or, "With virtue and goodness one acquires authority."
When Lazareff first captured headlines for operating on the twins--at a time when corporate captains were pilfering widows' and retirees' savings, the Middle East was re-erupting in bloodshed and cynicism was eroding America's psyche in the lingering wake of the controversial 2000 presidential election--the heroic separation of two helpless baby girls suggested nothing less than the victory of the virtuous. The public face of this determined compassion was Lazareff, an Argentine with American citizenship who had pulled together an elite medical team, many of whom, like himself, had volunteered their time. Consequently, Lazareff, boyishly handsome and possessed of a shy, seductive grin, was proffered as medicine's Lindbergh; a plucky lone eagle who had piloted through clamorous extremes to touch down on a safe shore. To play off the old joke, this was brain surgery--and then some.
Yet for Lazareff, freeing the "Little Marias," as they came to be called, had nothing to do with celebrity buoyed by high-minded metaphors. To the contrary, Lazareff never took his sudden stardom seriously. "I don't pay much attention to my intervention . . . because I am fully aware that I am just one of the many," he says. Lazareff considers surgery a chorus, the outcome sustained by the grace notes of all. He offers another analogy by way of a quote, something he is fond of doing: "I think Camus said that everything he learned from life he learned from playing soccer. Here in the United States, where we are accustomed to American football, you stop the play. [But] I am used more to soccer where you have 90 minutes and everyone runs up and down. And sometimes the winning goal comes out of the blue. So we look at the whole soccer game."
Modesty prevails with Lazareff, who often closes his personal correspondences with "a big abrazo"--a hug. He prefers casual slacks and a golf shirt to a coat and tie. And while he is deeply and cross-culturally informed about art, literature and history, he never plays the obvious intellectual and is earnest and accessible.
"My dad was a very socially oriented individual, and I was raised by him with this idea that the plumber was as important as the physician," Lazareff says. "Everyone is so vital, so critical. I believe if you're a humanistic human being, you will be a humanist, whether you are a plumber or a physician. If you have a hard, cold heart, then the [medical] degree will not soften you. You bring to it what you are."