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A warrior against pain

Dr. Frank Vertosick Jr. has written a book on why we hurt

Tuesday, November 07, 2000

By Deborah Weisberg

Frank Vertosick Jr.'s fascination with pain began when he was 12, with his first migraine. Through the years, the sickening headaches continued, initially once or twice a month, and in college as often as weekly. He would lie in bed for hours, sometimes days, with a trash can nearby should nausea strike. Once, in desperation, he gulped down 25 aspirin to relieve the pounding.

Dr. Frank Vertosick Jr., left, and colleague Dr. Bruce L. Wilder share a light moment at The Western Pennsylvania Hospital. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)
Determined that the headaches not derail his plans to become a surgeon, Vertosick kept his condition a secret from all but his family. But when a migraine forced him off the slopes during a ski trip with his medical school classmates, they questioned how he could pursue a surgical residency with such a debilitating problem.

It wasn't even an issue, he said.

He not only became a neurosurgeon, now practicing at The Western Pennsylvania Hospital in Bloomfield, but drew on his experiences to write his second book, "Why We Hurt: the Natural History of Pain," (Harcourt, $24) which looks at the historic, biologic and deeply human experience of pain syndromes.

The book, published in June, has drawn national attention from the New York Times, Newsday and other major newspapers and National Public Radio.

Now 45, Vertosick keeps a bottle of chewable acetaminophen tablets with him at all times -- even in the operating room -- to take at the first sign of a migraine.

He has taken just one dose of a prescription painkiller in his life. "Percocet, as an experiment," he said. "It didn't do anything except give me a light head."

Vertosick's family, friends and colleagues say his drive and focus have helped him excel beyond his surgery practice to develop a burgeoning writing career and a committed family life, and even earn a black belt in the martial art of tang soo do in four years.

If Vertosick is incapable of anything, it's mediocrity, said Dr. Greg Thompson, an Ann Arbor, Mich. neurosurgeon who trained with Vertosick at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

"He's absolutely brilliant," Thompson continued. "Most neurosurgeons are disciplined, but Frank's unique because he spreads his discipline around. He looks at things other than neurosurgery. In fact, neurosurgery wouldn't be enough for him."

Vertosick spends half his time practicing medicine, concentrating mostly in spinal surgery. He writes two hours on most nights, after he has helped his daughters, Emily, 12, and Elizabeth, 10, with their homework in the family's Fox Chapel home.

"It seems a lot of surgeons are multi-talented, but Frank's also driven," said his wife, Katherine Counihan, who is also a physician.

Vertosick was born in 1955 in Harwick, where his grandfather mined coal. A graduate of Highlands High School, he worked in a mill to put himself through the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in physics, and then through Pitt medical school.

"I don't want to embarrass him, but, Frank was always a bright kid," said his mother, Veronica, who lives in Natrona Heights with her husband Frank Sr., a retired steelworker, and their eldest daughter, Suzanne, executive director of the Mendelssohn Choir. "We bought him an encyclopedia when he was 12 and he actually read the stupid thing."

Her son had an early passion for drawing, particularly of human anatomy, and his family thought he would become a medical illustrator.

A sketch of a cathedral he drew with a Bic pen when he was 20 hangs in his Fox Chapel home. "That cathedral drawing is unbelievable," said his wife, who left her pathology practice to raise their children. "It's so intricate... You should see him draw Santa Claus on an Etch A Sketch. I told him, 'You could go on David Letterman with this Etch A Sketch thing.' "

About 10 years ago, Vertosick's interest in art began to shift to writing.

"I think he switched from painting to writing because it fulfills his interest in research, something he's always loved," his wife said.

Black belt Dr. Frank Vertosick Jr. goes through a drill during tang soo do class. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

An opinionated man, he's a frequent letter writer to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, challenging, for example, the views of Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht or the newspaper's position on gun control.

"He's never afraid to disagree, or tear down icons," said Thompson, the Ann Arbor colleague. At the same time, Vertosick "is extremely honest. He has total integrity."

His Sunday morning tennis partner, Colin Levkanich of Cheswick, recalls rushing down the highway one morning because he was late getting to the courts for their scheduled game. He remembers passing a car in frustration, only to glance at the driver and see Vertosick.

"There he was, doing the speed limit," Levkanich said.

Vertosick began to think about writing while Christmas shopping in a bookstore about eight years ago. A volume titled "How to Write a Book," piqued his curiosity.

"When I took it to the counter, the guy there kind of sarcastically said, 'You gonna write a book?' I said, 'Yeah, and I'll come back here for the signing.' " Which he did, three years later with "When The Air Hits Your Brain" (Norton, 1996,), a book about his residency.

He has since written for Discover and other magazines and is working on his third book, about intelligence.

Vertosick has even had a taste of Hollywood, serving as a consultant to the head writer of the now-cancelled TV drama "Chicago Hope." The writer was married to his sister Christine.

"One of the patients had liver disease, so I helped him with that. They even named one of the characters in the show after my other sister Paula Vertosick. It took a while for [actor] William Devane to say the name right," he said.

His publisher, Harcourt, urged him to write the book on pain, patterned on Sherwin B. Nuland's popular book, "How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter."

Vertosick at first doubted whether people would read a book on pain, but realized most would probably be interested.

"P.T. Barnum said, 'Never underestimate the stupidity of people.' Well you can't underestimate the intelligence of people. We have a great curiosity about the mechanics of things. We all have to die and we're all in pain."

Deborah Weisberg is a free-lance writer who lives in the East End.

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