Drake Lecturer will share how he rebounded from surgical burnout to lead a balanced life

Joseph C. Maroon, MD, FACS
Joseph C. Maroon, MD, FACS

In 1979, Joseph C. Maroon, MD, FACS, seemed to have it all figured out. At a relatively young age, he had become chief of neurosurgery at the University of Pittsburgh Presbyterian Hospital, PA. With a wife, two children, a beautiful home, and a burgeoning career, he was the epotomy of success. Until he wasn’t.

Over the course of a fateful few weeks 40 years ago, Dr. Maroon burned out, and it all came crashing down.

Dr. Maroon will disc uss his personal journey and how he bounced back from career burnout and personal setbacks when he delivers this year’s Charles G. Drake History of Surgery Lecture, From Surgical Burnout to Wellness: The Secret to a Balanced Life, Monday afternoon.

“Long hours and a laser focus on my career had already begun to exact a toll on both my professional life and my family life, and after a particularly challenging day in surgery, I came home to find that my wife had left and taken our two children with her,” Dr. Maroon said. “A few weeks later, still devastated by the end of my marriage, I got the news that my father, at the age of only 60, had died from a massive heart attack.”

Overworked, overwhelmed, and overcome with grief, Dr. Maroon resigned from his position at the hospital and moved to his hometown of Wheeling, WV, to take care of his mother and run the family’s struggling truck stop.

“A week earlier, I was healing people and saving lives in the operating room, and then, all of a sudden, I was filling up 18-wheelers and flipping burgers at a truck stop in West Virginia,” he said. “I was lost, at rock bottom, and had no idea what the future held for me.”

Looking for answers, Dr. Maroon happened upon, I Dare You, by William Danforth, founder of the Ralston Purina Company. In the book, which was published in 1931, Mr. Danforth described four key components he believed needed to be in balance in life—work, family, spirituality, and physical health.

“That book really opened my eyes and made me realize how completely out of balance my life had been,” Dr. Maroon said.

But it was a random suggestion from, of all people, the banker who owned the mortgage on the truck stop, that literally got Dr. Maroon moving again.

“He suggested that I needed to exercise and that I should start running. I think he really was just wanting to make sure I lived long enough to pay off the mortgage on the truck stop,” Dr. Maroon joked. “But it was great advice. I started to run, and it completely changed my neurochemistry—my diet got better, my spirituality, which was atrophic, was rediscovered, and my family situation improved.”

Dr. Maroon has been running ever since. And just one year after resigning himself to a life of pumping gas and slinging hash, he resurrected his surgical career, became an accomplished triathlete, and authored a highly acclaimed book, Square One: A Simple Guide to a Balanced Life.

In his book, Dr. Maroon combines his personal story with scientific explanations to help readers from all walks of life consider their priorities, avoid burnout, and seek more joy and creativity in their lives.

“As surgeons, stress comes with the territory. But it’s that critical tipping point you have to be aware of—when your engine is overheating and you’re starting to burn out,” Dr. Maroon said. “You have to be mindful and aware of where you are on a daily basis in terms of your stress level. If you neglect that and continue to overwork and over-stress, you’re going to pay a price.”

Today, when he’s not competing in Ironman triathlons at the age of 79, Dr. Maroon remains busy as clinical professor and vice-chairman, department of neurological surgery, and the Heindl Scholar in Neuroscience, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He’s also the team neurosurgeon for the National Football League’s Pittsburgh Steelers and medical director, World Wrestling Entertainment.

The Charles G. Drake History of Surgery Lecture is sponsored by the Advisory Council for Neurological Surgery. The lecture was established in 1992 to explore the historical development of surgery and to honor Dr. Drake, a leader in neurosurgery.

Charles G. Drake History of Surgery Lecture

From Surgical Burnout to Wellness: The Secret to a Balanced Life
Joseph C. Maroon, MD, FACS
2:30–3:30 pm, Monday
Moscone Center South, 303–304