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Veteran neurosurgeon comes to Dickinson

A medical intern picked up the phone late one evening, a call that would change his life. Injured sailor. Requesting overnight monitoring. Can you take him? Without consulting any of his superiors, the intern said yes. Upon arrival, he looked at ...

Dr. Alan Van Norman will start seeing patients in Dickinson on Nov. 8, the first neurosurgeon to visit town from Sanford. Photo courtesy of Sanford Health
Dr. Alan Van Norman will start seeing patients in Dickinson on Nov. 8, the first neurosurgeon to visit town from Sanford. Photo courtesy of Sanford Health

A medical intern picked up the phone late one evening, a call that would change his life.

Injured sailor. Requesting overnight monitoring. Can you take him?

Without consulting any of his superiors, the intern said yes. Upon arrival, he looked at the injured man's X-ray and requested a CT scan. It was 1986. CT scans were difficult to get during the day, let alone in the middle of the night. But the CT scan confirmed the intern's fears.

This man needed surgery, and he needed surgery tonight.

The neurosurgeon on duty told him to prep the patient and get him to the operating room-something the intern barely knew how to do. He had never done an operation on his own before, yet the neurosurgeon talked him through operating on the man's brain on his own, a surgery that saved the man's life.

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That night Dr. Alan Van Norman decided he might have a knack for neurosurgery. And he never looked back.

Welcome to Dickinson

Now Van Norman, a neurosurgeon from Sanford Health, will be the first to bring his specialty to the Dickinson area.

Van Norman will travel from his hospital in Bismarck to Dickinson once a month to meet and consult with patients. His first day will be Tuesday Nov. 8 at Sanford Health West, a wonderful addition to the clinic and benefit to the community, said Kathy Koppinger, the clinic administrator.

"I do think there is a need in Dickinson and in the surrounding communities," she said. "There's a lot of individuals, I think, in every community that have a lot of back and spine problems. ... It's a very specialized area of medicine, and I think to be able to have a neurosurgeon coming to our clinic specifically [will meet a need.]"

Many patients from Dickinson and the surrounding areas drive to Bismarck to see specialists like Van Norman, often requiring them to take a day off work, she said. His visits to Dickinson mean the difference between taking an hour off versus an entire day.

He said he would consider coming more frequently and operating in Dickinson if there was a need down the line but has no plans yet.

"I hope that I can be of service to the people of Dickinson," he said. "That's my hope, that's my intent, that's why I want to come. ... My vision is to serve the people of Dickinson in such a way that they don't have to spend all their time on the road, and I can spend it on the road in their stead."

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Van Norman had asked about expanding his services to Dickinson before, but could not fully commit because of the lack of manpower in his department back in Bismarck. There are now three neurosurgeons instead of two, so the time seemed right to start visiting Dickinson, he said.

Army doctor

Van Norman began his training in 1986 and finished up in 1992. The U.S. Army had paid for his training, so he spent the next 10 years working as a neurosurgeon for the military, spending a year in El Paso, Texas, before being stationed in San Antonio, Texas, for two years.

He then moved to Germany for seven more, working in an Army hospital caring for troops, their families and some civilian personnel with ties to the military.

"We saw many things there that obviously I am not going to see in Bismarck," he said. "It's hard to see young people torn up by war. It's just hard. There's no other way to say it."

He was the only neurosurgeon during much of his time abroad, he said. Troops often came to him with chronic back pain from injuries sustained while carrying out their military duties. At that time it was not uncommon for patients to have to wait months for their operations after constantly being pushed back by more emergent cases.

Eventually he returned to the United States and bee-lined straight for Bismarck, something he has not regretted since.

"Bismarck was actually the only place that I interviewed, and my reasoning was that the first time I took a look at Bismarck I thought, 'Well this is pretty much exactly what I'm looking for. I can look a long time and not find anything better, so I'm not going to bother looking,'" he said.

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At work he met his future wife, a nurse at what was then Medcenter One, and he has remained ever since.

Lifesaver

Even after decades of surgeries, operating still makes Van Norman nervous. But these nerves keep him from getting overconfident which can be deadly.

"Neurosurgery can be a very scary business, and probably the scariest times are when you know if you don't do the right thing very quickly that something terrible is about to happen, and that can be frightening for us just like it is for anybody else," he said.

The work itself is draining, he said. Most normal back surgeries take about one to three hours but some more complex procedures can take up to a half day or even a day. As he has gotten older, Van Norman tries his best to avoid those longer surgeries.

"After you're done, after the operation is over and you kind of have time to catch your breath and wipe the sweat off, and you know, think about what's just happened, you're oftentimes really tired, exhausted," he said. "And you just feel like you've been through a battle, and it's just hard on you. It's hard on a person.

"It's taking something out of you every time you do it. When you're young that's exciting. When you're old that's just scary."

Van Norman said he had a young woman come in with a ruptured aneurysm in her brain - a condition requiring probably the most demanding surgery as far as needing complete attention, he said.

They had initially planned to fly her out to another hospital better equipped to handle such a case, but a blizzard prevented them from doing so. Her aneurysm began bleeding a second time, forcing Van Norman to operate immediately. He was able to clip the aneurysm and save her life. She was able to make a full recovery and return to normal life, though he said the experience took a few years off his.

But, he said, the patients who do recover well make his job rewarding.

"Probably the most gratifying part of what we do is a satisfied patient," he said. "I guess I get to be happy in my work quite frequently."

When he is not operating, he enjoys traveling and exploring new places with his wife as well as bird watching, he said. His wife has two children from her first marriage, one who lives in North Dakota and one who lives in Denver.

Overall, he said his coworkers are one of the reasons that makes North Dakota so special to him.

"I've been lots of places, I've seen lots of things, practiced in a lot of hospitals and one of my reasons for coming here was the people here," he said. "I think the quality of the medical professionals here are as good as anywhere in the world. ... I think one of the attractions here in North Dakota, to me, is actually the quality of the medical personnel."

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