Harsh lessons teach neurosurgeon value of balance in life

The 1984 movie “The Karate Kid” has many philosophical lessons interwoven within the storyline.

During one iconic scene, Mr. Miyagi, while fishing, instructs his fledgling karate student Daniel to stand on the bow of the boat to learn balance. Miyagi says, “Better learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, karate good, everything good. Balance bad, better pack up and go home.”

Later, he expands upon his initial teaching.

Miyagi says to a frightened Daniel on his 16th birthday, “You remember the lesson about balance?” Miyagi goes on to remind Daniel that the lesson was not only about karate, but for his whole life. Bring balance to your whole life and everything will be better, he tells his student.

Most of us can cite an example of a professional athlete who excelled in his or her sport, however then fell from admiration due to a lack of balance in one or more of life’s anchors. This can also occur to anyone who places so much emphasis on one aspect of life while forsaking others.

Dr. Joseph Maroon is a self-admitted example of the aforementioned lifestyle.

Maroon excelled from an early age, on and off the field, in spite of a very rudimentary upbringing.

“I grew up in Bridgeport, Ohio, a town of 4,000 people, 10 bars and 60 dogs, and also with me at the time was a fellow by the name of John Havlicek, (Boston Celtics 8- time championship team member and Hall of Fame inductee). We played baseball together,” Maroon said.

Phil Niekro, Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves pitcher and Hall of Fame inductee, was also a teammate of Maroon’s.

“In the summer, we played baseball together on the American Legion baseball team. None of us had anything. Our parents were all working either in a grocery store, a bar or a coal mine,” Maroon said.

The three childhood teammates were all inducted into the Lou Holtz Upper Ohio Valley Hall Of Fame.

Maroon was not large in stature, weighing only 160 pounds. Nevertheless, he was able to amass a running back record while attending Indiana University.

“I held the rushing record of 5.3 yards per carry until Antwaan Randle El broke my record. I was pretty quick, pretty fast, and scared! They were much bigger than me, so I had to run pretty fast,” he said.

Maroon pursued his medical degree and eventually became the chief of neurosurgery at Presbyterian University Hospital in Pittsburgh. By the age of 40, he had achieved what some might coin a storybook life of successes.

Unfortunately, his life was not on solid ground.

In January 1979, he drove home in blizzard-like conditions. Upon opening the door of his home, he was shocked to see that his wife of 15 years had left him and taken his two children. The only items remaining in his home were his clothes, a bed and lawn furniture, which was placed in the living room.

Weeks passed and surgeries became more difficult for Maroon to perform. He admitted being filled with anxiety and fear. The final stressor that would lead to his breaking point came from a 2 a.m. phone call informing him that his 60-year-old father was found dead of a heart attack.

Maroon left his coveted position as a neurosurgeon to help his mother run the dilapidated truck stop in Wheeling, West Virginia, his father had bequeathed him.

“It was cataclysmic de­pression, suicidal ideation. What’s it all about? What am I doing here? I spent four years of medical school, six years of residency, and I’m working in a truck stop at age 42. It all collapsed like a house of cards because I was out of balance, burned out, working too hard, neglecting spirituality, family and my physical health,” Maroon said.

To add insult to injury, Maroon contracted hepatitis, which was likely due to his truck stop diet and undergoing significant stress and depression, which dramatically impacted upon his immune system.

In his 2017 book, “Square One, A Simple Guide To A Balanced Life,” Maroon reflects upon the catalysts that would lead him out of this horrific darkness.

About a month after recovering from hepatitis, Maroon stumbled across a book that he had received as a 1958 high school graduate from the Danforth Foundation.

“I Dare You,” written by William H. Danforth, a successful businessman and founder of the Purina company, challenged the reader to analyze his life. In essence, a successful life should resemble a square equally balanced by the amount of time spent on work, physical self, spirituality and relationships.

With labored introspection, Maroon realized his life in no way resembled a balanced square. Instead, it was primarily a straight line of work, which excluded the other three lines.

During this timeframe, a local banker, Don Jebbia, whose institution held the mortgage on the truck stop, contacted Maroon and asked a simple life-changing question.

“‘Hey, why don’t you just go for a run?'” I said, ‘I’m 20 pounds overweight. I can’t walk up a flight of steps without being short of breath.’ Nevertheless, I went down around the high school track four times. I said, ‘Never again.’ But that night was the first night I slept in about three or four months. So, I went back the next day and did a mile and a quarter, subsequently increasing my mileage. I learned to swim and bike. The unintended side effect of getting back to athletics was that my depression lifted. My neurotransmitters in my brain were reprogrammed. My serotonin and dopamine levels went up,” Maroon said.

Months after his new-found fitness, Maroon entered what is coined a “Tin Man” triathlon, which required a 0.9-mile swim, 25-mile bike race and a 6.2-mile run. He completed this first of many challenges that ushered what was to become a remarkable level of fitness that continues to this day at age 82.

“I have done eight Iron Man distance triathlons and close to a hundred triathlons, and I’m competing in the National Triathlon Championship Aug. 7 in Milwaukee,” Maroon said.

An Iron Man requires the participant to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles.

The spiritual side of his square was balanced by revisiting his Catholic roots, reading the Bible and becoming more aware of the purpose of his actions, rather than pursuing an ego-driven life without regard for the significant impact of his gestures.

“I’ve probably operated on 20,000 people, published 300 peer review papers, written seven books and all that really was after I came back from my depressive slump. I’m a very appreciative individual of that banker who called me and said, ‘Let’s go for a run’,” he said.

The relationship side of the square was mended and enhanced by Maroon’s ability to analyze what had caused his marriage and relationships to dramatically deteriorate.

As a student and surgeon, his life was dominated by intelligence and scientific data. Emotion was pushed aside in favor of objectivity. Through viewing the harmonious marital relationship of a very close friend and reading books such as “Emotional Intelligence,” written by Daniel Goleman, Maroon was able to reflect upon the path that led to disharmony.

Today he is remarried and is able to see the great fortune of being blessed with four adult daughters and he has strived to become a much better father and grandfather.

Maroon’s curriculum vitae (resume) reads like a treasure trove of accomplishments.

Aside from being the Pittsburgh Steelers neurosurgical consultant for 35 years, he is most proud of one significant accomplishment that has impacted the lives of many athletes.

“I was the first NFL neurosurgeon appointed by an NFL team. In 1990, Chuck Noll challenged me when I told him his starting quarterback, Bubby Brister, couldn’t play against the Cowboys next week. ‘Why not’ asked Noll? ‘Well, he’s had a concussion.’ ‘Well he looks good to me,’ Noll retorted. ‘Well, the guidelines say he has to sit out at least two weeks.’ ‘Why not three, why not one? How do you know that,’ Noll asked? He says, ‘Maroon, if you want me to keep somebody out, I want objective data, not guidelines.’ And he was right. I went to a neuropsychologist, Mark Lovell, and we developed the ImPACT test, Immediate Post-Athletic Cognitive Testing, It’s a 20-minute test that athletes take before the season and then if they have a concussion they have to get back to their baseline in terms of their brain speed, memory and ability to handle data. We’ve now tested over

20 million kids, and it’s the standard of care in the United States for returning to play after a concussion,” Maroon said.

These days, Maroon exercises one or two hours per day. He concentrates on running, biking and swimming and has added resistance machines and exercise bands to enhance his strength.

“I primarily consume a Mediterranean diet, of vegetables, fruits, whole wheat, lean meat, chicken, a lot of fish, salmon, fresh-frozen salmon, not Atlantic tin-fed salmon,” Maroon said.

His spiritual side of the square transcends to his operating room.

“There’s no more fearful or apprehensive time with a patient lying on a gurney waiting to be wheeled into an operating room to get their brain or back operated on. I’ll take a patient’s hand and say, ‘Do you believe in a higher power?’ If they do, I ask them if they’d like to say a prayer. Today’s the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. That 10-second prayer has elicited more thank yous and more appreciation than almost anything else I’ve done,” he said.

George Thomas Kattouf of Altoona is the developer of the website AgelessTimeless.com. If you or someone you know in Blair County is age 50 or older and would be a good candidate for the Fitness Track, email Kattouf at george@agelesstimeless.com. Would you like to know how some of the world’s leading experts maintain amazing levels of health and fitness? Tune in to the YouTube channel AgelessTimeless to learn more.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *


Starting at $4.39/week.

Subscribe Today