Chief of Neurosurgery, Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters;
Director, CHKD Surgical Specialty Group
As the region’s senior provider of pediatric neurosurgery services, Dr. Joseph Dilustro handles an astonishingly wide variety of cases at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters.
On any given day, he might be placing a shunt in a fragile premature baby, removing a brain tumor, or handling traumatic head injuries caused by car accidents, falls or child abuse.
A firm believer in hands-on care, Dr. Dilustro makes rounds, builds powerful connections with patients and their families, and regularly teaches residents at Eastern Virginia Medical School as an assistant professor.
“I think you have to have a passion for this work,” he says. “The practice of pediatric neurosurgery is dramatically different from adult neurosurgery. To want to do what I do, it has to be in your DNA.”
A Native from New York City, Dr. Dilustro moved to Hampton Roads when his father, who was in the Department of Defense, was transferred here. A few years later, he enrolled at the University of Virginia. He applied early decision to EVMS and a scholarship from the Lincoln-Lane Foundation paved his road back to Hampton Roads.
“It was a different time back then,” he says. “I remember first-year tuition being $3,200. EVMS was a very young school and I liked that it was a three-year program with no summer breaks.” While there, he became intrigued by neurosurgery, sensing those specialists were “truly having fun.”
After an internship in general surgery at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, Dr. Dilustro completed a residency in neurological surgery at EVMS and a fellowship in cerebrovascular surgery and microneurosurgery at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.
Upon completing fellowship, Dr. Dilustro accepted a position that covered both CHKD and Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. For the next 10 years, he treated both children and adults.
In 1997, his wife, Sharon, was accepted into the master of arts in art history program at the University of Colorado. The family moved to Boulder, and Dr. Dilustro worked at a neurosurgery practice there while she completed her studies. By 2001, he was happy to be back at CHKD for good as one of the expanding health care system’s two first full-time pediatric neurosurgeons.
CHKD has grown exponentially since then, and Dr. Dilustro has been delighted with its progressive approach to multispecialty clinics.
He is heavily involved in the hospital’s neuro-oncology clinic, which has embraced advances in chemotherapy and targeted treatments. He also serves as one of the neurosurgeons in CHKD’s spina bifida clinic and has been involved for decades as lead surgeon in CHKD’s craniofacial clinic and its partnership with the medical charity Operation Smile, a relationship that turned CHKD into an international center for craniofacial surgery more than a quarter century ago.
As medicine has advanced during his 30-year career, Dr. Dilustro’s work has grown more complex. In the neonatal intensive care unit at CHKD, babies born as early as 22 weeks now have a chance of survival. However, they are at high risk for bleeding into their brains, which can eventually lead to hydrocephalus and the need for a shunt.
Pediatric neurosurgeons try to wait until newborns weigh at least 2,000 grams, but even then they have undeveloped immune systems and skin “as thin as tissue paper,” Dr. Dilustro notes. “The risk of infection is so high. You have to be meticulous every step of the way.”
Time spent with neonatal cases got Dr. Dilustro involved in a study of neonatal interventricular hemorrhages early in his career. More recently, he has spoken with an assistant professor of engineering at Old Dominion University who is interested in brain mapping to find the least invasive paths while performing surgery.
Still, Dr. Dilustro’s heart has always been more in clinical medicine than research.
“We’re involved in every step of these children’s care,” he says. “I have a strong team at CHKD. We recently opened a neuroscience unit for specialized recovery care. I have three superb nurse practitioners, a great office staff, a plethora of health care resources and a great partner. Getting Dr. John Birknes to join our practice was a coup. He had just completed his fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a perennial powerhouse in pediatric neurosurgery, and I really thought he would opt for the ‘big time.’ His being here is a feather in our cap.”
On the home front, Dr. Dilustro and his wife of 30 years have raised two adult daughters, one a fashion designer and one an architect. He enjoys sailing and boating in his free time, although free time tends to be limited. In fact, he recently sold a boat that was gathering dust.
“You make sacrifices, yes,” he says. “But you get so much back from the kids.”
Not surprisingly, the children who grow up more normally – or simply grow up at all – remain forever grateful. The longevity of Dr. Dilustro’s career has even started to play out in clinic: Patients from decades ago now bring in their own sons and daughters to see him.
“Kids I treated 20 years ago contact me to say, ‘Thank you. I was thinking about you. You operated on me when I was 3,’” he relates. “I get Christmas cards from young adults who were once patients and now have children of their own. A woman at a restaurant recently approached me and said, ‘You saved my son’s life 17 years ago.’ Those moments are pretty incredible.”