Mountain Made: Dr. Julian Bailes
You might recognize him from recent appearances on shows like ABC’s Inside Your Mind and Good Morning America, CNN’s Larry King Live, or from magazines like GQ and ESPN The Magazine. Perhaps you know him as part of the team that brought Sago Mine survivor Randal McCloy through tragedy, or as the researcher who brought former WVU Mountaineer and Cincinnati Bengal Chris Henry’s brain back to Morgantown after his untimely death in 2009. Or maybe you’re one of hundreds of patients that Dr. Bailes and the neurosurgery team at West Virginia University Hospitals have successfully treated in the last ten years.
In addition to saving lives four days a week, this author and former Pittsburgh Steelers team physician is Chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at WVU Hospitals, team doctor for Mountaineer football, nationwide Medical Director for Pop Warner youth athletics, Medical Director for the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, developer of brain health supplements for athletes, Director of the Brain Injury Research Institute at WVU—and the list goes on.
Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Bailes, alongside Dr. Bennet Omalu, are changing the game of football from youth leagues all the way to the pros. Their findings have rocked the National Football League and put the dangers of repeated brain trauma on the minds of players, viewers, and fans the world over.
WV LIVING – You’re family has been here for ten years. What are the advantages to living in West Virginia?
Julian Bailes – For the type of work I do, West Virginia University provides a great resource and facility to support that. Geographically, we’re in a place where many patients can get to us—it’s one of the reasons we’re so busy here. It’s important to be a part of a large medical center where I think we can positively impact people. In terms of family, we’re close enough to Pittsburgh, where my wife is from, and we take advantage of every sporting event we can get to and a lot of the arts available here in town.
WVL – The world watched as you and your team fought to save Randal McCloy after the 2006 Sago Mine incident. Describe that experience we all remember so well.
JB – He became an important national symbol and held a record for exposure to poisonous gases. Once it became obvious that we could save his life, the brain rescue became the focus, and that was what I was most involved with. Bringing someone back from the brink and working with everyone to save him—from the earliest rescue workers on the scene on down—certainly made that a tremendous experience.
WVL – Four days a week you’re performing surgery on an incredibly sensitive part of the human body. How do you deal with the pressure?
JB – We have some patients we can’t save. We have many that we do. You never feel like you’ve arrived. You never feel like you know it all. You have rewarding times, but you’ve got to get up the next morning and face other challenges. I think to bring patients back from the brink and to see them wake up like Lazarus—and it’s not just because of me, it’s the whole team we have here—that’s the most fascinating and rewarding thing.
WVL – Dr. Omalu’s findings blew the door wide open on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease often found in those who have suffered multiple head traumas—like concussions—and you’ve testified in front of Congress and been consulted by national media outlets. What do you want the average sports fan to know about the implications of repeated head trauma?
JB – Football is my favorite sport. We’re not trying to outlaw it, we’re only trying to help it and its players survive by pointing out the findings. Brain damage in boxers has been documented since the 1920s, and when you’re an American adult, you somehow know what it means to be “punch-drunk.” But not everyone knows a boxer. Whether you’re a viewer, a player, someone’s brother, someone’s boyfriend, everyone has some connection to football. Bottom line— when you play the game you assume a certain risk. You might blow out your knee and need surgery to repair it. What you don’t sign up for is to play football and be a brain damaged young adult. Setting goals for a better understanding is important, but the ultimate objective is making the game safer.