Non Exactly Brainy

Michael Cooley's nightmares began some weeks before he finally allowed a Scottsdale neurosurgeon to operate on his brain. Cooley recalls waking up from his nightmares with a sickening sense that something dreadful would happen to him in the operating room. But he also knew the surgery was necessary; the large, benign tumor on the left side of his brain might soon blind him unless it was removed.

As it turned out, Cooley's premonitions about something terrible happening in the operating room were right on target. In March 1984, Dr. Fred Christensen removed ten grams of healthy tissue from the wrong side of Cooley's brain. Christensen would not comment to New Times, but he did acknowledge the error two weeks ago when he was called before the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners, the state board that disciplines doctors. "I did operate on the wrong side of his head," Christensen told the board. "I don't think I can make that go away.

"I can't really give you any justification for operating on the wrong side of his head. It was an error. It should not have been done." That's small comfort to Cooley, who had to undergo a second brain surgery--on the left side of his brain--the day after his first operation. Cooley says he learned after the second operation that he may need yet another surgery because not all of the tumor had been removed. "I thought I was going in for one brain surgery to get rid of the tumor, but instead I've had two brain surgeries and I still have the tumor," says Cooley, who is now 36 and says he feels perfectly healthy. Cooley ended up suing Christensen for malpractice in Maricopa County Superior Court in 1987. That suit was settled out of court this March, with Christensen paying Cooley $150,000. Christensen admitted to the medical board that he didn't have Cooley's brain-scans available at the time of the surgery. The x-rays would have shown the tumor, and just where it was located. But Cooley himself had taken the x-rays from his office a few days before, Christensen said, and when they were discovered missing, Cooley was "asleep" on the operating table.

The board did not exactly punish Christensen, but wrote him a "letter of concern," which permanently documents the error in Christensen's public license file.

Before Christensen left the meeting with the board, he noted that Cooley recently asked him to be his doctor again. "To my absolute amazement," the surgeon recalled, "he requested that I see one of his children about three months ago who was having a seizure. I declined that."

Cooley freely admits that he wanted Christensen to take care of his son because he still thinks Christensen is "probably the best brain surgeon on this planet."

"The nurses call him the Man with the Golden Hands," says Cooley. "He just made a mistake on me.