Michael Heggeness



Michael Heggeness, professor, Department of Orthopedic Surgery, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, USA, chief, Orthopaedic Spine Service, Veteran’s Administration Medical Center, Houston, USA, is the 2011–2012 president of the North American Spine Society (NASS). He talked to Spinal News International about the highlights of his career.

Why did you choose a career in medicine and, in particular why did you choose to specialise in spinal surgery?

I blame my parents! My father was an MD PhD [a dual doctorate in medicine and in philosophy] and he chose the research life for himself. He had a passion for nature, which was reflected in everything he did. My mother was a pathologist—in fact, she was the first woman to graduate from the University of Rochester School of Medicine. Their decades-long conversations on biology and medicine were central to my childhood.

After finishing college [university], I initially went to graduate school for a PhD in biochemistry and subsequently did a postdoctoral fellowship in virology. I went to medical school with the idea of becoming a pathologist and pursuing a career in molecular virology. It was in my clerkship year of medical school that I realised that I was actually fated to be a surgeon. Orthopaedic surgery just looked like so much fun that I had to do it.

Who has had the biggest influence on your career and why?

The opportunities to learn from Dr J William Fielding when I was a resident and from Dr John Kostuik when I was a fellow were very special. Both of them pushed me to think hard, and aim high.

During your career, in your view, what has been the most important development in spinal surgery?

The recent development and application of the concept of evidence-based medicine has changed how we look at everything.

What are the three most important questions in spinal surgery that require an answer?

They are:

  • How can we intervene in the spinal cord injured patient to best foster recovery?
  • What is the biologic origin of back pain?
  • How can we more effectively prevent osteoporosis?


Of the research you have been involved in, which piece of research are you most proud of and why?

I am still very proud of the work I was able to do as a graduate student in membrane biology, defining some of the very basics of cytoskeleton-membrane interactions. However, perhaps my greatest pride in my more recent work has been in the description of the large network of abundant intraosseous nerves that are found within the vertebral body. I believe that this will be very important in the near future in our understanding of bone healing, bone metabolism and hopefully very soon, in the treatment of back pain.

What are your current research interests?

I am now very interested in the tissue engineering of bone. I am part of a large multi-institutional team using a viral vector containing the BMP2 gene to induce very rapid bone formation for the healing of long bone fractures. We have applied this to spinal fusion in animals, and have outstanding results from simple injection based procedures that do not require surgical exposure of the spine.

What has been the most interesting piece of research published in the last year?

The confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson.

As the current president of NASS, what are the key themes of this year’s meeting?

The key themes for this year’s meeting are a better integration of basic science in the meeting, and expansion of our international activities, which includes cosponsoring meetings and making the annual meeting more welcoming for our international guests.

Which sessions are you planning on attending and why?

I will attend as much of the meeting as my every growing list of commitments allows. I am especially interested in the symposium on pelvic pain, which will be a very new topic for our membership. I am delighted that this symposium will be largely presented by international speakers.

As someone who is a member of several spinal societies, what in your view are the benefits of joining a society?

The societies foster the exchange of information, their primary mission. More recently there has been an acute need for physician advocacy; the societies are our best voice in drawing attention to recent events that can adversely affect our patients’ care.

What would be your advice to someone starting a career as a spinal surgeon?

Do not get stuck in an all-consuming career. Take care of your family and please hang on to a few hobbies. Do not let your work consume you—I have seen this happen too often.

What has been your most memorable case and why?

My most memorable cases are the ones that did not do as well as I hoped they would. Unfortunately, not everyone gets better, no matter how hard we try. It still hurts to think of such cases.

What in your view is the most important factor ensuring good patient care?

Caring doctors, nurses and care team.

Social networking has changed the way people communicate. What role, if any, do you think it has in the spinal surgery community?

Well, I am 60 years old now, and a slow adopter of social media. So, thus far while social media is “stylish” I have personally not found it very useful. Truly, it is all that I can do to keep up with my emails!

Outside of medicine, what are your hobbies and interests?

My first interest is my wife and family: my one true love Andrea and our four children. We have two in college and two in the eighth grade (second year of high school). All four of them are lucky enough to have found their own passion. Life is good.

My own hobbies include fly fishing, in both fresh and salt water. This is probably the hardest way to catch a fish, but also the most rewarding. I also like to think that I am pretty good at cooking fish as well, although there are sometimes mixed reviews on that issue.

I am also pleased disclose to you that I play the electric bass. I pick it up to practice nearly every day. I am also proud to report that two years ago we managed to start a classic rock band drawing from NASS board members and staff. We manage to rehearse a few times a year when the board meets. We call the band Axial Pain; it is way more fun than I deserve.

Fact File


1998–present professor, Department of Orthopedic Surgery, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, USA

1990–present chief, Orthopaedic Spine Service, Veteran’s Administration Medical Center, Houston, USA

2002–2010 professor and chairman, The Wilhelmina Arnold Barnhart chair, Department of Orthopedic Surgery, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas

Medical training

1989–1990 Orthopaedic Spine Surgery—Fellowship, University of Toronto/Toronto General Hospital, Toronto, Canada                         

1985–1989 Department of Orthopaedic Surgery—Residency, St. Luke’s/Roosevelt Hospital Center, New York, USA    

1984–1985 Department of General Surgery—Internship, St. Luke’s/ Roosevelt Hospital Center, New York, USA                       


2004 John B Carter Award for Technological Innovation

1997 Special Recognition Award for Teaching, Baylor College of Medicine Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

1991 Cervical Spine Research Society Research Award


2011–present president, North American Spine Society (member since 1993)

2000–present American Orthopaedic Association

1991–present Cervical Spine Research Society examiner, American Board of Orthopaedic Surgeons