Neurosurgical Associates, Norfolk; Staff Neurosurgeon, Sentara Norfolk General Hospital
After two decades as a general neurosurgeon, Dr. Tina Rodrigue’s sense of wonder is still obvious when she discusses the intricacies of the nervous system. Her favorite work is perhaps the most delicate and dangerous: extracting tumors from the brain, pituitary gland and more rarely the spinal cord.
“These procedures are so elegant, so clean and precise – unlike any other kind of operation,” Dr. Rodrigue says. “They’re fascinating, and in so many cases, you can really help people improve their quality of life.”
The evolution of minimally invasive techniques has allowed Dr. Rodrigue to help even more patients in recent years, whether they are battling debilitating neurological deficits such as speech impairments or hemiparesis or, at times, facing steep odds of survival.
One such brain cancer patient has called her every year, on the exact anniversary of his complex surgery, to thank her. One of her current patients is married to another man whose life she saved several years ago, by removing an arteriovenous malformation akin to an aneurysm.
“She told me, ‘You are the reason why my husband is here. I wouldn’t go to any other doctor,’” Dr. Rodrigue relates. “Those words mean so much to me. This is a challenging specialty, but it’s very rewarding.”
Neurosurgeons increasingly can disturb less healthy brain tissue thanks to endoscopic equipment and computer-guided imaging systems that precisely pinpoint abnormalities even deep inside the brain. In addition, pituitary tumors and some skull base tumors now can be removed through sinus cavities rather than the skull.
In spinal surgery, minimally invasive procedures similarly have led to smaller incisions and shorter recovery times. Dr. Rodrigue also is excited about research into motion preservation technology, which could substitute durable, implanted artificial discs between vertebrae for spinal fusions.
“The spine is not meant to be fused, even if the surgery can resolve a trauma or instability,” Dr. Rodrigue notes. “Spinal fusion now is fairly overused for chronic pain. If we can recreate the natural anatomy of the spine and preserve motion between segments, we should be able to achieve better results for many more patients. My hope is that in 20 years or so, we may not be doing spinal fusions at all.”
Dr. Rodrigue, now 47, was interested in anatomy in elementary school. Growing up about an hour north of New York City, she had three dream jobs as a child: doctor, movie star or President of the United States. To encourage the first profession, Dr. Rodrigue’s mother brought home coloring books detailing internal body structures and introduced her to what would become her favorite book, “I Am Joe’s Body”, a narrative on organs and systems. The young girl soon memorized it from cover to cover.
As a teenager and then an undergraduate at Colgate University, Dr. Rodrigue originally planned to go into psychiatry. She sought to understand how the mind could affect behavior – specifically, she wanted to figure out how to stop serial killers. Yet she found she was drawn more to biology and anatomy than to theory, and she soon pivoted to a neuroscience major.
From there, neurosurgery was a logical next step in medical school. Dr. Rodrigue paid for her degree at Medical College of Virginia by joining the United States Navy, as her parents couldn’t afford to cover both that and her younger brother’s college tuition.
Praised by colleagues for her selfless nature and lack of ego, Dr. Rodrigue doesn’t sugarcoat her initial fears about becoming a brain surgeon. She willingly reveals that she fainted repeatedly during an early obstetrics rotation, but she thrived in neurosurgery, especially after a nurse gifted her with a pair of compression stockings to get through long surgeries.
“I don’t need those anymore, although my ankles get pretty swollen after standing for hours,” she says with a laugh. “I was always fascinated by these cases, including the emergency setting that came along with so many of them.”
Dr. Rodrigue completed her internship and residency at University Hospitals of Cleveland and also earned a Master’s in Clinical Investigation at Case Western Reserve University before moving to Hampton Roads in 2004. She served for three years at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, where she was named Staff Physician of the Year for the academic year 2005-06.
Following her Navy commitment, Dr. Rodrigue worked in private practice with both adult and pediatric patients before joining Neurosurgical Associates in 2014. She has been on staff at Sentara Norfolk General since 2007, the same year she became an American Board of Neurological Surgery Diplomate. In addition, she is a member of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, and the North American Spine Society.
The majority of Dr. Rodrigue’s cases today are spine patients, with ruptured discs, degenerative spinal processes and traumas among the most common complaints. She handles a smaller amount of neuromodulation cases as well.
At home, Dr. Rodrigue and her husband, Todd, are parents of two teenagers and also have fostered several children over the past five years, ages 3 to 16. She credits her love of service to her parents, who frequently lent a hand to people going through tough times and took in stray or injured animals.
Of course, Dr. Rodrigue can’t help everyone, which she says is the hardest part of her professional life.
“Sometimes, the severe neurological deficits will remain even after treatment, or there’s simply nothing we can do to save someone’s life,” she says. “Yet more and more, I am grateful and amazed by what we can do.”