Wednesday, April 12, 2017



Douglas Winslow Cooper, Ph.D.

     “I need this like I need a hole in my head,” I was tempted to say to my neurosurgeon, Michael G. Kaplitt of the New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Soon he would be drilling that hole in my head. I wanted all his good will I could muster, which ruled out a typically wise-guy comment from me. I would not want to induce a “Freudian slip” in the vicinity of my brain.

    Several months before this, in late spring of 2008, my neurologist, Dr. Baradaran, had listened to my litany of new symptoms, sent me for some tests, evaluated them, and had given me, gently, the bad news: I had hydrocephalus, “water on the brain.” If not treated, I would likely experience dementia, depression and death. Outside of that, I joked, nothing to worry about. I needed a hole in my head to relieve the internal pressure from the improper flow of my cerebral-spinal fluid. My investigations led me to choose Dr. Kaplitt and his group at New York - Presbyterian.

     The operation was September 4, 2008. Dr. Kaplitt and team drilled a hole, perhaps a quarter of an inch in diameter, into the upper right-hand region of my forehead, penetrated the dura matter protecting my brain, made a passage through my gray matter to a cavity, the right lateral ventricle, and put one end of a tube there. Several inches from that end, a pressure-regulator valve was attached to the tube, followed by more tubing that was run under my skin, “tunnelized,” back behind my ear, along my neck and chest, finally into my abdominal area.

    I learned that this was not my first brush with death due to hydrocephalus. In fact, I had the condition at birth and nearly died. It cured itself almost fully, spontaneously, perhaps due to my mother’s fervent prayers, as the doctors at Manhattan’s Mt. Sinai Hospital had told her to give up on me. So advised my father, her first husband, an accountant and a drinker. That was the last straw for her. They had conceived me “to save the marriage,” which I definitely did not! 

         My brain was not damaged, fortunately. I attended Hunter College Elementary School, based on passing a rigorous admissions test, and I went on to academic success in high school and college, ending up with a Ph.D. in engineering from Harvard University. I had a three-decade career in the environmental science field including positions at Harvard and at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown Heights, NY.  

         Perhaps my mediocre amateur athletic career can be partly attributed to my over-pressured brain. I played football in high school, as a very light defensive end, but baseball and basketball required more skill than I had. Dancing eluded me. Drafted into army after graduating from Cornell with a Bachelor of Arts in physics, I handled Basic Training successfully, but my marksmanship was barely passing.

         I’ve had little trouble with the hole, the valve, and the tubing since the September 2008 operation. My initial valve pressure setting was average for an adult, but subsequent computerized tomography (CT) scans of my brain showed my brain had gotten so used to the higher pressure it had for so long, that the valve setting needed to be at or near the maximum pressure.

      I emerged the Bionic Doug. No longer was I experiencing three classic symptoms of hydrocephalus, a.k.a. “water on the brain”: trouble walking, urinary incontinence, short-term memory deficits. I had a fourth symptom that was fixed, also, a narrowing of my emotions, less cheerfulness, less gloom, a dull, mellow emotional middle ground.

Upon recovering, I preferred my faster thinking and my ups and downs to that emotional numbness, which had not been all that bad.    

         Helmet or no helmet? For a week or two after resuming driving, I wore a helmet, as I did not want the valve in my head to hit the windshield. Soon I stopped this as being inconvenient, considering an accident unlikely.

         Hat or no hat? The bump on my head is where the valve is. I find it quite unattractive. One could wear a bandage or a hat. I finally decided to go hatless, to the disadvantage of those who have to view my bump. A book I read recently on looks, and the importance throughout our lives on physical attractiveness, made me perhaps too aware of the shortcomings of my appearance, but I had never been particularly good-looking anyway.

We play the cards we are dealt. I am lucky to be alive and relatively well in twenty-first-century America, married to the woman of my dreams, financially secure and still interested in life.

    Almost nine years later, I feel fine. I can walk our dog and get some other exercise. Retired, I’ve become a freelance writer and writing coach.

I thank Dr. Kaplitt and his staff and my own neurologist, Dr. Baradaran of Middletown, NY, for this successful outcome.

Turned out, I did, indeed, need a hole in my head.


  1. Nice description of a scary but treatable condition. It took an engineer with a child with hydrocephalus to develop the first shunts 😎Everyone has their strengths. Best wishes! Mary