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‘I feel like I’m home’: North Platte clinic brings W. Lee Warren back to roots

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‘I feel like I’m home’: North Platte clinic brings  W. Lee Warren back to roots

Dr. W. Lee Warren, left, performs surgery in a tent hospital at Balad Air Base, where he practiced from 2004 to 2005. Warren is spearheading Great Plains Health’s brain and spine clinic.

Dr. W. Lee Warren didn’t grow up with the ambition of being a brain surgeon.

“I was enamored with our family doctor. I wanted to be him,” Warren said. He was determined to go to medical school and then return to his hometown in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, to practice family medicine. However, in med school on an Air Force scholarship, it only took about a week in his family medicine rotation before he realized “it was not my thing.”

“I was not wired to take care of the same problem in the same person for a long time,” he said. “My next rotation was general surgery and it was so cool. People would have a big problem, and a procedure, and then they were well — or they weren’t — but there was a start and a stop. There was a discrete, concrete deal, and it worked for me to have a clear problem that needed fixin’, as they say in Oklahoma, and something needed to be done to address the problem.”

But even so, he wasn’t a fan of the procedures performed by general surgeons. He was at a loss for what to do. Then, with the birth of his son, he had to change his schedule. The only way things would work out was for him to pick up a month of neurosurgery.

“I didn’t know anything about it. I was just checking a box on my schedule. The first day I walked in, they let me drill a hole in somebody’s head, and I was completely hooked,” Warren said, laughing. “It was lasers and computers, and all these fancy gadgets and these big problems nobody understood how to fix. ... It just worked for me. It was my perfect thing to do.”

After medical school, Warren moved farther and farther from his roots, he explained in a recent newsletter: “I drove up that dirt road in Oklahoma in 1987 and hit the pavement and kept going until I got to college in Oklahoma City. And I never lived on a dirt road since.”

Until he came to North Platte.

At the beginning of June, Great Plains Health welcomed Warren as its first neurosurgeon.

At his previous position in Casper, Wyoming, Warren worked at a major trauma center. When the hospital was bought by a larger corporation, he and Lisa decided it was time to move.

“I wasn’t comfortable with” a big corporation running the hospital, Warren said. “So we started looking at other places where we really could have an opportunity to make a difference, and matter for the rest of my career.”

Also a published author and podcaster, Warren could have gone anywhere.

“I could have gone to Dallas or someplace and been one of 50 neurosurgeons,” he said. “but I just have never practiced that way. I always wanted to be somewhere where I can make a bigger impact and be really needed.”

That ended up being North Platte.

In Nebraska, the communities between Kearney and Scottsbluff, and extending down into Kansas, are without a readily accessible neurosurgeon. That area is the size of Pennsylvania.

Warren was emphatic that if he was going to bring neurosurgery to North Platte, it would be done correctly — something he stressed when he met with GPH CEO Mel McNea and other hospital team members.

“I didn’t think it was right to convince referring doctors who have been served well by neurosurgeons around here — you know, Kearney and the cities — if I can’t tell them that I can’t provide the same or better quality care with the same or better equipment, then we shouldn’t do it at all,” Warren said. “I’m a guy who (if) I’m gonna do it and put my name on it, it’s going to be right.”

GPH agreed, impressing Warren.

“I basically laid out what a modern neurosurgery operating room looks like and they started writing checks. It was much more than just a conversation about what kind of a living can I make here. The hospital convinced us that they were ready to create a neurosurgery program,” he said.

Since moving here, Warren has met people who have experienced firsthand the need for the program.

“The first three people we met that didn’t work (at GPH), their lives had all been touched by not having a neurosurgeon here,” Warren said. “The lady we bought our land from asked me what I did for a living, and when I told her she started crying. She said, ‘My daughter has hydrocephalus and has been flown out of this hospital like 10 times over the course of her lifetime.’”

Warren also found out that the family who owned the land had a son who died of glioblastoma, a brain tumor. And the man who farms the field attached to their land? His wife died of a brain tumor.

In addition to being able to provide a service to an underserved area, the move also offered Lee and Lisa the opportunity to work together when McNea recruited her to help “get (GPH’s) people going.”

This isn’t the first time that the Warrens have worked together.

They owned a clinic in Alabama, on the campus of Auburn University, which covered the full scope of neurosurgery, spine and pain, according to Warren. Lisa managed the practice.

“We really realized how important it was to alleviate pain and restore function in people’s lives. All of that specialized brain surgery stuff was about getting less invasive and doing less damage to the tissue and stuff, and it was at that point in my career that I realized I could do the same thing in spine surgery,” Warren said. The normally invasive surgeries with large incisions and months-long recovery time could utilize neurosurgery’s microsurgery techniques. “I realized all of that interest I had in cranial microsurgery was about learning to do big things in a small way.”

Part of the drive to serve people came from his time in the Air Force and the year he spent performing brain and spine surgeries at Balad Air Force Base.

“I recognized that the most important thing was serving people, not being in some academic environment and wearing a white coat. It was more about the people,” he said.

In Alabama, Warren and Lisa also spent time working with engineering students at Auburn, realizing how important interdisciplinary innovation is.

“We’re both innovators,” Lisa said. “I’m an interior designer, didn’t train in any way to be in the medical field, but I think having that design background but also coming from a totally different paradigm of not seeing problems the way he sees them, I think we were able to create solutions that separately might not have worked.”

The couple has submitted about 20 patents and has two issued patents for minimally invasive surgical implements. In North Platte, they’re looking forward to spending more time tinkering.

“We both don’t tolerate, ‘Well, that’s how it’s always been done,’” Lisa said. “That’s a challenge. You’ve just thrown down the gauntlet.”

For the Warrens, North Platte isn’t just a place to work — they want to be involved in the community.

“We live here. We’re not just coming here to work. A balanced healthy life involves friends and neighbors and churches and involvement in the community,” Warren said. “We’re looking forward to becoming citizens of North Platte.”

After all, moving to North Platte was a homecoming of sorts for Warren.

"I’m just a left-handed kid from Broken Bow, Oklahoma, who God gave amazing opportunities to — an amazing gift and an amazing family and wife,” he said. “I really in every way feel like my whole life has led up to coming to this place to take care of ranchers and farmers, because they’re my folks, they’re who I can relate to. In every way that it can be true, I feel like I’m home.”

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