15. Timing Is Everything

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When I didn’t hear from DA after a month, I e-mailed him again and was stunned to be greeted by an automated reply that DA was on a 12-month sabbatical.  He would return in January, 2016!  His personal e-mail address was provided, but he didn’t respond to my attempts to reach him.

I could only assume he was in Istanbul, where the Yasargils currently lived, listening to Yasargil dictate his “authorized” biography.  That may or may not have been true, but under the circumstances I had very few options, and to stand by and allow my book to go unpublished was not one of them.  For the life of me, though, I couldn’t imagine Yasargil being able to dictate a satisfactory biography to DA in twelve months.  Yasargil and I had spent years on the project.  The research and transcribing the audiotapes alone had required countless hours. Plus, the background was quite complex, and professional aspects almost demanded an author with a sound knowledge of neurosurgery.

14. What I Didn’t See Coming

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Between 1984 and 1996 Yasargil’s famous book, Microneurosurgery, In Four Volumes, was actually published in six volumes (Volume III and Volume 1V were printed in two volumes each)  There were a total of 2,566 8 x 11-inch glossy pages in columns of small print plus thousands of photographs and illustrations, many in color. Volumes were sold for hundreds of dollars each.  Virtually every serious neurosurgeon on the planet purchased a set. Many others were purchased by residents and institutional libraries. The book continues to be sold in large quantities.  One can only imagine the profits Microneurosurgery made for Thieme!

13. A Huge Break?

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I didn’t immediately sign a contract with Koehler Books, but I did begin taking the necessary steps to get the ball rolling toward publication.  First, I identified a list of photographs we would need for the book and took steps to secure their copy rights.  Since photographs of Leonard Malis and Josef Klinger had appeared in Yasargil’s famous six-volume textbook, I contacted Thieme Publishers at its New York office, and requested the right to use both photographs.

Permission was granted within 48 hours, on September 8, 2014.  There was no mention of hoops to jump though and not a word about having to pay for the rights.  Even more important, my e-mail was forwarded to the Thieme’s Stuttgart office, in Germany.

12. Finding a Way

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I completed a full draft of the manuscript in 2008 and had a dozen copies printed privately to be circulated among neurosurgeons, other doctors, and a few others on both sides of the Atlantic for comments.  This turned out to be useful since many forwarded questions and comments that would materially strengthen the next draft.    An entirely new chapter resulted, another two expanded, and several others were revised and expanded with fresh ideas and information.  One of the respondents, a former editor himself, volunteered to read the subsequent manuscript.  His debating certain chapters with him led to clearer, stronger statements.  I was no closer to publication, but I did have an improved manuscript.

11. Rising Frustration

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When a close call with my health in 2006 alerted me to my own mortality, I understood  I had to redouble my efforts to finish the book.  I was thirteen years younger than Yasargil but with his being a non-smoker living on fruit, vegetables, and nuts while avoiding alcohol and red meat and taking vigorous late-afternoon walks, he could live to be a hundred!  His mother had lived well into her nineties.  The realization generated another letter to him, this one pointing out that my own uncertain health made it impossible to adhere to my plan to delay publication until after his death.  It was simply a practical matter. Who knows how long one will live?

10. The Matter Is Clarified

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By telephone some months later Yasargil informed me he was having second thoughts about my continuing with the book.  He was vague about it but he seemed to say that he was having reservations about my capacity to bring it off.  But when he demanded me to stop writing, though, I was shocked.  He didn’t have that kind of power over me.  We certainly had no agreement, formal or informal, restricting me.  He had even introduced me to the group in Buenos Aires as a man working on a very important book, that those assembled should remember my name!  The only concession he made was to say he didn’t care what I published after his death.

9. Little Rock—February, 2000

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Leaders of the University of Arkansas School of Medicine received Yasargil’s designation as “Man of the Century” with great pride. A gala event was held at the Chenal Country Club in Little Rock to raise awareness and initiate the funding of a professorship honoring Yasargil.  Friends, former associates, and former patents attended from all over the world.  Perhaps as many as 150 showed up.  A letter lauding Yasargil’s accomplishments was sent by George W. Bush, President of the United States.

8. Boston—November 1999

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Members of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons convened for a special annual meeting in November of 1999.  Through its Editorial Board and International Liaison and Advisory Panel (nearly 160 experts from around the world) the journal, Neurosurgery, had just named Yasargil “Man of the Century.”  Nobody was surprised by the selection, but it did create quite a stir.

The Saturday evening prior to the beginning of the Congress meeting, Yasargil attended a dinner hosted by Hunt Batjer, who was honoring his former chief, Duke Samson, at the Harvard Club of Boston.  Seated at the opposite side of the hall, he came over to my table and asked if I would like to accompany him, Diane, and a one of his Turkish residents in Little Rock on a day-trrip to Ocunquit, Maine.

7. Buenos Aires—August, 1999

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Drs. Silvia Berner and Fernando Knezevich, both well known to Yasargil, invited him to Buenos Aires to speak to the Argentine Neurosurgical Association.  Their stated purpose was for Yasargil to teach their colleagues “everything he knew about neurosurgery.”  He was immediately ecstatic.  Finally someone wanted him to set the agenda.  Plus, he was promised there would be no time restrictions.  Not only would he be the star, he would be the only speaker!  He would have total control of the agenda.  He truly looked forward to it.  He asked me to come along since he was confident I would hear something relevant to our project.  And Diane invited my wife.  We were all set.

6. Little Rock—December, 1996

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When I returned the following December, my wife came with me.  Diane insisted.  It turned out to be an excellent idea.  She and Diane were immediately comfortable with each other, and I would end up with a new perspective of the Yasargils as a couple.  Saturday evening Diane prepared a wonderful dinner, and several of the medical school faculty were present.  Diane was a spectacular chef and a radiant hostess.  Stories were told, leaving me yearning for my tape recorder, which I’d left in our bedroom.  (I jotted down notes about two of them later, but used neither in the book.)  For the first time in my life I saw Yasargil joyful and seeming fully content.

5. Little Rock—July, 1996

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When I returned in the summer Yasargil presented me several books to read.  Since I had seen him last, my late night reading had focused on European history and all aspects of the Ottoman Empire and its successor, the fledgling Republic of Turkey, but the gift-books were even more important in focusing my Yasargil-inspired education.

With some trepidation I handed him the ten or twelve pages I had roughed out after going through the transcripts I had made of the recordings.  (My secretary had no chance with his broken English.)  The tapes of our previous meeting contained a story from his childhood and his early experiences in World War II.  He had had trouble supplying names of a few characters so I made them up, hoping to jog his memory.  He took my pages to bed with him on Friday night.


4. December, 1995

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I heard from Yasargil in the fall of 1995.  He had retired from the University Hospital in Zurich and moved to Little Rock, where he would spend his retirement with Ossama Al-Mefty, the chairman of neurosurgery at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine.

Then I received a phone call from him on a Sunday in mid-December.  I had just returned from an NFL football game.  I’ll never forget the sound of his voice on the answering machine.  Later he addressed me by my first name and told me he wanted to see me as soon as possible.  He was quite pleasant over the telephone, more relaxed than I could imagine him.  He wanted me to arrive the Friday after Christmas and for me to phone him my flight number and estimated time of arrival.

3. Finally, Progress!

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In 1993 Yasargil appeared in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia to give the inaugural Charles Drake Lecture.  Neurosurgeons came from throughout the region, and many from great distances to hear him present a compelling discussion of art, history, philosophy, and evolution—and how they interacted.

The night before his speech a cocktail party was held in the home of Ladislau Steiner, who played a major role in the development of the Gamma Knife.  Yasargil, dressed in a new suit—a bluish-green, quite pale—beckoned to me from nearby.  He was in conversation with Steiner, to whom he introduced me.   He didn’t exactly call me by name, but informed Steiner that I was a young man intent on writing a book about the history of microneurosurgery. 

2. Pursuing an Elusive Subject

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Throughout the 1970s and 1980s I kept up with Yasargil at neurosurgical meetings and congresses in various cities throughout the United States. During this period his celebrity among his peers grew rapidly.  Often he showed signs of possibly recognizing me, and his wife followed his cue with a gentle smile.  He never called me by name, but he greeted me warmly.  Once I asked him if he’d ever considered having a book written about his life.  He responded with a quizzical look as though he didn’t understand what I had said.  When I repeated the question, he brushed me off, muttering something about I couldn’t imagine how busy he was. 

1. Night Train to Zurich

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Five days after Christmas in 1972 I prepared to board the last train to Zurich.  A light snow began to fall outside London’s Victoria Station.  Travelers, mostly British, milling through the entrance were bundled up in heavy coats, hats, mufflers, and gloves.

I was familiar with trains to the Continent.  First, there would be the ferry at the Channel, its choppy waters and the sea-sickness I dreaded.  Then would come the train to Paris, continuing on to Switzerland.  It would be a long night, twisting and turning in the stiff and poorly padded and severely upright seats.  There were no funds for a sleeper.  I was all but broke.