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South Florida's Best and Brightest
Originally published: Friday, April 1, 2011 (12:02:03 a.m. ET)

Dr. Barth A. Green
Neurosurgeon Barth A. Green. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images).
Dr. Barth A. Green
Before, way before, the likes of John Travolta ever piloted his shiny Boeing 707 into Port-au-Prince, and eons before Sean Penn could ever pinpoint the island of Hispaniola on a world map, there was Dr. Barth Green. It was 1994 when Green started Project Medishare for Haiti to provide medical and other vital services for that mostly impoverished Caribbean nation. (It wasn't until last year's ruinous earthquake when Hollywood began to descend on Haiti in overtly obvious publicity ploys). Not that Green was looking to fill some free time. He already was in the throes of leading a herculean effort involving hundreds of physicians, nurses, researchers, and clinicians under the aegis of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine. His other passion is Shake-A-Leg, which he co-founded in 1990 to create learning and recreational experiences on the water for anyone who is physically, financially, or developmentally challenged.

Q: What advice would you give youngsters who want to embark on a career in your industry?
A: They have to really know they want to serve others, that they want to be a healer. It's about 15 years after high school. It's a long haul. Once they are exposed to all of the areas of medicine, if the brain, and spinal cord, and the nervous system excite them, then they have two pathways. One is medical neurology, and the other is surgical neurology. I chose surgical neurology and I sub-specialize in spinal cord and spine surgery. Some people just do brain tumors; some people just do aneurysms. I do spinal cord tumors, and vascular and trauma and paralysis. I think it's a matter of what people enjoy. My job is 24/7, pretty much; one of my sons is a dermatologist, the other is radiologist. So they are very socially conscious, but they are following a different pathway where they will have a different amount of time with their families to do other stuff with their lives. I've missed a lot things, doing what I do. But on the other hand, it's very gratifying.

Q: Of what professional accomplishment are you most proud?
A: I don't think I can say I'm proud of anything, except my family and the people I work with. Because the reason I'm getting awards, and the reason I'm getting all these plaques, is because it takes a team. And they've all made me look good. So I'm proud of what our team has done. Most recently, in Haiti, we saved the lives of 30,000 injured and ill patients in a tent critical care hospital like no other in the world. I'm proud of that. The Miami Project team has applied to the FDA for human trials to transplant Schwann cells. [With] $350 million and 25 years of investment, we're now on the edge of curing paralysis. I'm proud of that. This year, Shake-A-Leg put 12,000 kids and adults with physical, developmental, and financial challenges on the water and in the classrooms, evening the playing field. I'm proud of that. I don't know where to begin and where to end.

Q: What's the most challenging part about your work?
A: That it never ends. And it's not dealing with the victims of poverty or disease or injuries. It's more dealing with the governments and the officials that maybe have more of an agenda than helping people and that's what is so challenging.

Q: What did you envision doing for a living when you were growing up?
A: My fantasies were in sports. I would have loved being a football player. I outgrew my options in high school, that was my last football game. I loved music, but I had none of those blessed skills, so I ended up just being a doctor.

Q: In ten years' time, I will be _________________.
A: I will not be doing surgery by that point. I will be focusing more on my community efforts, to serve the underserved.

Q: Who are/were your professional role models and why?
A: My father and my grandfather were family practitioners, family doctors, and they both were really social service-minded and community-minded. They volunteered. Both worked in poor neighborhoods where, socioeconomically, people didn't have an opportunity. They both sold their patients pills for a dollar, and we stayed up at night, packing pills so their patients who couldn't afford to go to a pharmacy were able to take the medicines they needed. I became a neurosurgeon, but I still do family medicine and community health. I do it in Haiti. That's my passion. Even though I'm a neurosurgeon, I still think the most wonderful experience for a physician is to become part of a patient's family. My father and my grandfather went to the births and the circumcisions and the christenings and the funerals and the weddings, and that's something we miss as super-specialists. It's wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am. We do the operation, it works, they're grateful, and they send us a card to thank us, but it's not the same as the bond that exists between primary care physicians and their pateints.

Q: If you could do anything else in the world for a living, what would it be?
A: Nothing different. Except sometimes I wish I didn't have to work for a living because I could spend more time serving others.

Q: What's the best part about your job?
A: I treat some of the most catastrophically injured patients in the world that exist. And the most important thing for me is getting that family medicine bond with patients and their families, and helping them through their most challenging times, and being able to improve their quality of life with my surgery and with my other skills. That's really important. I become very significant in their opportunity to survive and to thrive in the future, and I love that part of medicine.

Q: What's the worst part about your job?
A: The worst part is the bureaucracy. I spend hours every day on computers. I'm threatened every day by lawyers and patients who want to sue me because their food was cold, or I'm ten minutes late to the clinic when I'm trying to save a life. It's very difficult. The fact that physicians and politicians and businesspeople are not all the same, morally and ethically. There is extraordinary fraud and dishonesty in medicine. The same exists in the legal profession and the same exists in our government. Until we can straighten out our act, that is the most frustrating, worst part of my life, is having to deal with that. I don't have time for anybody who is negative. I don't have time for anybody who is angry. I want to spend all of my remaining hours and energy on people who want to get better, want to do better, want to be better. That's my goal.

Q: What's the one most important thing that experience has taught you?
A: By far, it's that what goes around comes around. I tell my kids all the time that it doesn't matter what people do or how they act; it's what you do yourself and how you treat everybody, how you behave every day, how you interact, how you serve others. You don't have to get even with people or correct people, you just have to do the right things every day of your life, and it will come back to you in so many different ways. And communicate, communicate, communicate.

Q: What's the best career advice anyone has imparted on you?
A: I don't think anybody gave me advice as much as the fact that I had role models. Some of the leaders in Miami were my role models in addition to my father and my grandfather. Jay Weiss was a humanitarian who protected Jackson Hospital from the politicians, and now it's being torn apart because he passed away. Alvah Chapman started the Homeless Center. He brought the Pope to Miami, he dealt with the whole drug issue, setting up a coalition against drugs in Miami. People like Jim Batten, the CEO of Knight-Ridder. Bill Colson, who was president of the American Bar and a real hero. These people inspired me to community service. They really were my role models like my father, grandfather, and my mother. My mother was a hippie. She marched with Martin Luther King. She attacked the Nazi Party. She taught me about the importance of service and about selflessness. She said, 'Never drive a new car, never wear a nice suit because doctors are like priests or rabbis; they should enjoy the plaques they get and the thanks they get and nothing more.' That's the way it was. My father was never allowed to own a new car. My grandfather never owned a car.

What one thing would you do different/better if you could start it all over again?
A: I can improve on a lot, but I wouldn't change one day of my life. I've been so blessed. My family, my kids, my wife, they're amazing. My parents and my whole community have supported me so much. I was unbelievably blessed in Haiti. I landed on the ground, and within a week, I had a 300-bed, computerized, air-conditioned hospital. From [former NBA center] Alonzo Mourning and from the South Florida community, people just opened up. I had hundreds of private airplanes, jets, flying down thousands or doctors and nurses because there were no commercial airlines. Can you imagine having that opportunity? We brought in 5,000 physicians and nurses. In a few months, we treated 30,000 patients. We brought in a million tons of supplies and distributed them all over the country. We all flexed our muscle for the good of people. Today I watched television and tears came to my eyes. I looked at Japan, I looked at the earthquake, I looked at the tsunami and I said, 'Oh my God. But hopefully there will be legions of people flowing to that area, showing them what humanity is all about, showing them what being human is all about.

Q: What's your favorite South Florida charity?
A: The Buoniconti Fund and The Miami Project are committed to the worst catastrophic injuries, to make people walk again. It will affect not only the quarter-of-a-million quadriplegics and paraplegics in America, but millions all over the world in wheelchairs. What better gift than to get someone out of wheelchair? Shake-A-Leg evens the playing the field for tens of thousands of kids and adults with all these challenges, physical and developmental; they don't have any other opportunities. It's open 24/7. And then Project Medishare, and the Global Institute, serving the underserved. There are millions of kids in this hemisphere who are starving. Thousands die every week from starvation and dirty water, and they are a few hours from here. Shame on us. What a great opportunity we have to change the world for these people. They don't want a car, a boat, or a first-class hotel room. They want the opportunity to learn, to be able to support themselves, they want an education.
Archive: 20 Good Questions
Best & Brightest: June 2011