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For Richard G. Ellenbogen, MD, chair and professor of neurological surgery, living life by the golden rule isn’t good enough. So instead, he applies the platinum rule to everyone he meets: treat others the way they want to be treated.

That’s been the philosophy behind his work with neurological surgery residents at UW Medicine for the past 25 years. It’s helped him connect with residents in more impactful ways, building what he refers to as his second family. The ideology bolstered his efforts to expand the residency program and make it more reflective of the communities we serve. The more inclusive approach has also set the tone for how future neurosurgeons will provide needed care.

Reshaping neurosurgical education

Ellenbogen, a first-generation physician and surgeon, arrived at UW Medicine in 1997 bringing his passion for performing pediatric neurological surgery. At the time, he left behind roles as a chairman and program director at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the hospital where he began his medical career in 1983. And taking on another department leadership role wasn’t on his mind at all.

In 2002, however, the dean of the School of Medicine and his colleagues requested he take the helm, temporarily. Once there, he recognized a significant need for clear direction in the neurological residency program. So, he took an unorthodox step and took the residency director role, as well as chair.

“The residents and students are my second family, and I consider it incredibly important to mentor them,” Ellenbogen says. “Mentoring is one of the most important things we do — it’s as important to me as research and clinical care. It’s our way of paying it forward. If you want to change the world for our students, you do it one student at a time.”

Thanks to his dedication, he was awarded a 2023 Parker J. Palmer Courage to Teach Award from the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME)), which recognizes program directors who have fostered innovation and improvement in their residency and fellowship programs and served as exemplary role models for residents and fellows.

Throughout his UW Medicine tenure, the face and focus of the neurological surgery residency program have changed immensely. Today, it is the most diverse of any department in the medical school, growing from zero women and underrepresented minorities to roughly 40%. The result, Ellenbogen says, is a training program that more closely resembles America and is better able to meet the wide range of patient needs.

The Neurological Surgery Department has also developed a high-impact residency program rooted in two R25 training grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which support the development and implementation of programs that relate to research education and training of residents and fellows and to foster careers of physician scientists. One R25 award ensures residents learn to write grants of their own, and the second one encourages underrepresented minorities in college to pursue careers in neuroscience. He says that with this extra training and guidance, over 10 UW Medicine neurological surgery residents have earned chair or chief positions in their respective departments or divisions. And, 80 of the college students have been accepted to medical school.

However, Ellenbogen hasn’t confined his efforts to UW Medicine’s neurological surgery residency program. Through multiple leadership roles, including serving as president of the Congress in Neurologic Surgeons and the American Society of Pediatric Neurosurgeons, as well as the chair of the American Board of Neurological Surgery, he has emphasized a paradigm shift toward more inclusive, innovative education.

“We changed the way we treat military applicants, women and underrepresented minorities,” he explains. “You take your equity, diversity and inclusion platform, and go on the road. It’s not just a local mentoring and recruiting effort, but a national one. People begin to look at UW Medicine Neurological Surgery as an example, wondering how it became so successful.”

Protecting brain health

While preparing the next generation of neurosurgeons remains a top priority, Ellenbogen also dedicates time to exploring new neurological territory. Through a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-funded molecular imaging lab, he collaborates with the engineering department on campus to use immunofluorescent nanoparticles to highlight and target brain tumors.

In addition, he partnered with two other principal investigators on a Paul Allen Brain Science Foundation project that focuses on people who have experienced traumatic brain injury. This collaborative investigation maps their transcriptome — the body’s molecules that carry genetic material needed to make proteins.

His interest in traumatic brain injury prompted Ellenbogen to accept a volunteer position as the co-director of the National Football League (NFL) Head, Neck and Spine Medical Committee. During his seven years in this role, from 2010 to 2017, he leveraged science and the heft of the NFL to advocate for greater concussion protection for young athletes. Not only did he advocate for sideline concussion diagnosis and new management protocols, but his efforts also secured $100 million in research funding and his advocacy with other others helped approve youth concussion laws in all 50 states.

“I routinely share my philosophy with my residents so that they take it with them when they graduate,” he says. “First, love your patient more than you hate the disease you’re treating, and give your patients your very best every single day of your life.”