DuBOIS — With the largest capital improvement project under way since the inception of Penn Highlands Healthcare, Dr. Ghassan Bejjani, a board-certified neurosurgeon, said it’s an “exciting time” for him to be the first chief of the newly formed Penn Highlands Neurosurgery Department at the PH Brain and Spine Center.
“The administration of Penn Highlands has a vision, and they have the means to make it happen,” Bejjani said. “That’s what encouraged me to come here because if you don’t have the means, and you don’t have the vision, you can’t do much. I think it’s going to be exciting days ahead for us.”
Bejjani, who joined Penn Highlands at the end of 2018, said there’s a huge need for tertiary care and neurosurgery in the area.
“There was no neurosurgeon from the New York state line, all the way down to Altoona and Johnstown, and from Williamsport to Erie,” he said. “The administration is looking to provide the services and grow the area. The expansion is a major undertaking of the hospital’s doing and by eventually bringing a trauma surgeon on board, they’re expanding at every single level.”
Bejjani said at least 20 percent of the patients he sees are from his previous practice in Pittsburgh.
“Now, those patients do not need to travel for care,” he said.
A diagnosis of a disorder that affects the nervous system, brain or spinal cord can be cared for and treated by the neurosurgeons and staff of Penn Highlands Neurosurgery. This department can help manage patients throughout a spectrum of neurosurgical conditions, including simple and complex brain and spine procedures, as well as peripheral nerve and surgical pain procedures.
Specialized physicians can treat simple and complex brain tumors, pituitary tumors, skull base tumors, acoustic neuromas, cerebral hemorrhage, brain trauma, spinal cord tumors, compression fractures, spine infections and tethered cord syndrome.
“We have the latest technology,” he said. “The hospital bought us all of the state-of-the-art equipment we need.”
In addition to DuBois, patients can be seen in satellite offices throughout the region including St. Marys, Clarion, Indiana, Greensburg and State College.
“All of the surgery will be done in DuBois, but patients can see us in other areas,” he said.
Shortly after Bejjani came to Penn Highlands, Dr. Zafar Chowdhry, board-certified neurosurgeon, joined him, along with certified physician assistants, Laura Sasala and Renee Krugger. Bejjani noted that Chowdhry previously practiced in Johnstown and has trauma experience.
One of the latest techniques available at Penn Highlands Neurosurgery is knife-less surgery to treat brain and spine tumors, Bejjani said.
“We’ve been doing a lot of kyphoplasties, which they didn’t get done here before we came in,” he said. “Elderly people have soft bones, and they break. They’re in pain for like three to six months, laying in bed from pain. We probably do an average of three or four a week.”
Kyphoplasty is a procedure to treat a vertebral fracture. It is done by injecting a special cement into the vertebrae bone to give it the strength it needs. To get the cement to the right spot and create the right opening – a small balloon is injected first to expand and shape the vertebrae correctly.
Kyphoplasty offers an alternative treatment option, where a minimally invasive, 20-minute procedure, with practically no recovery time and low complication rate, has a very high success rate in controlling the pain, Bejjani said.
The neurosurgeons are also using spinal cord stimulator devices to treat patients.
“People that have chronic back pain, instead of being on narcotics ... if they’re not surgical candidates, now we can put those devices on their back that numb the core so you don’t feel the pain anymore,” Bejjani said. “And that helps, especially now that there is an opioid epidemic. There are a lot of things that are being done for the first time in DuBois and there’s more to come.”
He said surgery isn’t the answer for many conditions.
“Out of every 20 patients we see, maybe one or two end up needing surgery,” he said. “The rest manage their pain through physical therapy, injections or medications.”
In what little free time he has, Bejjani said he enjoys relaxing, going to the movies and spending time with his wife, Rita, and their five children, ranging in age from 16 to 25, at their Treasure Lake home.
“They love it here,” he said, noting that his youngest daughter thinks DuBois is “cozy” and like a “Hallmark (movie) town.”