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Inside the Operating Room for Awake Brain Surgery

Being a doctor comes in handy when straddling art and science.

At the University of Florida, Parkinson’s disease patient Russell Price undergoes surgery to implant a deep brain stimulation (DBS) lead that will deliver electrical impulses to motion-controlling parts of his brain, treatment which has been shown to provide substantial relief from symptoms in appropriately selected patients. Additional improvement in some patients may also derive from the mere expectation that the procedure will help—the so-called placebo effect.


Max Aguilera-Hellweg has been fascinated by the human body since he first set foot inside an operating room while on assignment in the late 1980s. He likened the experience to "finding himself in the middle of a stage with the president inside the space shuttle. It was like going to the moon." In short: amazing.

He was so intrigued that he went on to not only photograph some 300 more operations for his book, Sacred Heart, but also to attend medical school, finishing his residency but ultimately returning to photography.

When a videographer was needed to document brain surgery on a man suffering from Parkinson's disease, Aguilera-Hellweg's combination of skills made him an ideal choice. He had both familiarity with the subject matter and the ability to guide the other members of the story team—photographer Erika Larson and writer Erik Vance—in asking the right questions and getting in the right position to document what was happening.

"I can appreciate everyone who is in the room," Aguilera-Hellweg says. "As a journalist I don’t take no for an answer—it’s all about manipulating the situation to get more time, to get the person to open up to you. But in the hospital room, I take no for an answer. I know where the lines are drawn. That allows the doctors to trust me."

Brain 101 The brain constitutes only about 2 percent of the human body, yet it is responsible for all of the body's functions. Learn about the parts of the human brain, as well as its unique defenses, like the blood brain barrier.

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