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by Christina Echegaray | Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015, 10:18 AM
Noel Tulipan, M.D., renowned neurosurgeon and trailblazer in fetal surgery repair for spina bifida, died Monday after a long illness. He was 64.
Dr. Tulipan, professor of Neurological Surgery, emeritus, and former chief of Pediatric Neurosurgery, led a distinguished career spanning three decades at Vanderbilt, where he laid the pioneering groundwork for treatment and care of babies born with open, neural tube defects, specifically spina bifida.
In that time, he also mentored future neurosurgeons, provided care for adult and pediatric patients across the life spectrum and earned international recognition for his work. He was known for being an incredible taskmaster and an efficient and gifted surgeon. But he was also a humble giant, who despite changing the field of neurosurgery, never stepped into the spotlight.
“Vanderbilt lost an iconic surgeon today. It is hard to imagine the Vanderbilt Department of Neurosurgery without Noel Tulipan — affectionately known as ‘Tuli,’ said Reid Thompson, M.D., William F. Meacham Professor and chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery.
“Thousands of patients with complex neurosurgical problems have benefited from his considerable skill as a neurosurgeon. He treated some of the most challenging patients: his youngest patients were in-utero; his oldest in their 90s. Tuli was an unbelievably talented surgeon, a true surgical pioneer. A generation of residents benefited from his skill as an educator. He was razor sharp and had a wonderful wit. We will miss him greatly.”
Dr. Tulipan earned his undergraduate and medical degrees from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he also did his internship in surgery and residency in neurosurgery. He arrived at Vanderbilt in 1986.
He began the groundbreaking journey in fetal surgery in the 1990s when he explored if a better way existed to treat babies born with open, neural tube defects, specifically spina bifida (myelomeningocele), the most common birth defect in the central nervous system. Despites naysayers, with his dogged determination to help patients, Dr. Tulipan pressed on.
He performed the first in utero repair of spina bifida in 1997, which subsequently led to the seven-year, landmark Management of Myelomeningocele Study (MOMs) involving Vanderbilt, the University of California San Francisco and Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania.
The results showed babies who have corrective surgery for a serious form of spina bifida while still in the uterus experience a reduction in potentially life-threatening hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain) and have an increased ability to walk.
“Noel put Vanderbilt’s pediatric neurosurgery program on the map. He was an outstanding surgeon and it was his innovation, tremendous skill and pioneering technique in fetal surgery repair for spina bifida that changed the lives of children around the world,” said John W. Brock III, surgeon-in-chief for Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, director of Pediatric Urology and Monroe Carell Jr. Professor.
“He touched so many people’s lives — from the patients and families he cared for to his clinic and operating room staff to his colleagues and friends. He was a man of few words who never expected or wanted the limelight for his pioneering work. We should take the time to celebrate his work, life and friendship. He was great man who left us too soon. I will miss him dearly. I offer my sincerest condolences to his wife, Donna, and the rest of his family.”
Dr. Tulipan’s clinical interests focused on all aspects of pediatric neurosurgery, with a special emphasis on congenital defects of the nervous system, hydrocephalus, craniofacial reconstruction and surgery for spasticity. He helped treat more than 5,000 adults and children for hydrocephalus, a condition in which there is an excessive accumulation of fluid on the brain.
In other research, he looked at placing shunts in older patients with normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH)-induced dementia, an often-reversible condition, and sought to identify a biomarker to determine which patients benefited most from the procedure.
A little more than three years ago, Dr. Tulipan had the foresight to think of the future of the Division of Pediatric Neurosurgery. Knowing retirement wasn’t far off he worked with Thompson to identify and recruit his successor as chief of Pediatric Neurosurgery, John C. “Jay” Wellons III, M.D., MSPH.
Dr. Tulipan continued to work in the department and see patients. He retired in June.
“Noel was a surgeon’s surgeon, first and foremost. Efficient. Technically excellent. And his outcomes reflected it. While he will be best known for his contributions to the national field of fetal neurosurgery, his career arc here at Vanderbilt is long and broad, caring for patients, teaching his craft and pushing the field forward,” said Wellons, chief of Pediatric Neurosurgery, Neurosurgery Residency program director and medical director of the Surgical Outcomes Center for Kids (SOCKs).
Many people who worked alongside Dr. Tulipan over the years had a chance to see the man beyond the talented surgeon. He had a dry sense of humor and a deep love for travel and dabbling in different cuisines. He also was a published author of two medical mystery novels.
“He was also fun and had a wicked sense of humor with an ability to deliver it at just the right time. Noel was a terrific partner and my friend, and I will miss him, as we all will,” Wellons said.
Dr. Tulipan is survived by his wife, Donna Hummell, M.D., professor of Clinical Pediatrics at Vanderbilt, daughter, Rachel, and son, Hunter.
A private cremation was held, and according to his wishes, a small gathering of family friends to memorialize his life will be arranged for a future date. Friends and colleagues may express their sympathy with donations to one of his favorite charities: the Hydrocephalus Association, the Nature Conservancy, The World Wildlife Fund or the local, privately-funded NPR radio station.
Christina Echegaray, (615) 322-4747
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