From Refugee Camp to Neurosurgery Accolades

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

by Deborah Daun

A stint on Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds’ chicken farm in Phoenix taught Volker Sonntag, M.D., the value of hard work and not complaining. More than three decades after the doctor’s 35-cents-an-hour high school job, Mr. Reynolds sought medical advice from him and insisted on paying for the consultation. Dr. Sonntag added self-reliance to what he’d already learned from the hardworking farmer.

Born in West Prussia in 1944, Dr. Sonntag spent his toddler years in an allied refugee camp before his father reestablished a dental practice in Germany. In 1952, his father had surgery to remove a brain abscess and never fully recovered. The family, which included two brothers, immigrated from Germany to Phoenix in 1957.

Dr. Sonntag wishes his parents had survived long enough to see the success that eluded them. It was their tenacity and perseverance that motivated him, as did his strong drive to do something good with his life, to heal people and to relieve suffering.

The early lessons, combined with Dr. Sonntag’s discipline, work ethic and a desire to redeem his parents’ sacrifices, are what he believes make him a good neurosurgeon.

1971 Graduate, 2017 Convocation Speaker

Dr. Sonntag was in the first class to graduate from Arizona’s first medical school in 1971, serving as president of this group of 32 students. He recalls how, in the early years of the medical school, the relationship between the students and 19 faculty members was much more formal, something students don’t experience today. Male students were required to wear coats and ties; the few women in that first class had to be “smartly dressed.”

The approach to teaching over the years has evolved as well. Students are taught systems rather than subjects. They study, for example, all the facets of the digestive system, to include its anatomy. When Dr. Sonntag was in school he studied anatomy, which included the digestive system.

Technology, too, makes a big difference for medical students today. “We had to be physically sitting in the auditorium for lectures. When I give a lecture on the Phoenix campus today, at least a third of the students are elsewhere because my lecture is being live streamed,” says Dr. Sonntag.

Add to these changes the fact that today there are two complete, well-equipped UA medical colleges in Tucson and Phoenix. When Dr. Volker was enrolled, there was no Phoenix campus and the medical school building in Tucson was still under construction. There was no adjacent hospital. During lunch hour, as Dr. Sonntag recalls, “we sat on cardboard boxes and ate sandwiches that we brought from home.”

Dr. Sonntag completed his internship at the UA in 1972 and went on to complete his five-year residency in 1977 at Tufts-New England Medical Center Hospital in Boston. He was Chief Resident at Tufts for two years, working 120-plus hours per week. But residency is different today as well: relationships are less formal, hours are shorter, and there is a greater emphasis on work-life balance. Residents are less fatigued and can therefore do a better job, notes Dr. Sonntag.

Sixteen years after graduating from medical school, Dr. Sonntag was awarded the first UA College of Medicine Alumni Medal in 1987 for outstanding recognition and accomplishments after graduation.  

In 2017, he was a convocation speaker at the UA College of Medicine – Tucson. Dr. Sonntag’s presentation title, “The Courage to Care,” reveals his values, as does a previous talk he gave to incoming medical students, “The Privilege to Care.” He believes it takes great courage to be personal with patients and get them and their families through health crises and the medical system.

His advice to new physicians? “Never lose sight of your personal connections with patients and their families. Take your eyes off the computer screen and look at the people sitting in front of you, because no matter what the computer may reveal, they are relying on your expertise to help them make the crucial decisions they need to make about their health.”

Family and Accolades

Dr. Sonntag retired from practicing neurosurgery in 2010. He continues to write, serves on editorial boards, and gives talks around the world. Most of his travel in retirement is done with his wife, Lynne, who he met while he was an intern at the UA and she was in nursing school. They live in Phoenix and have three adult children and two grandchildren.

“My loving wife, Lynne, and my family are extremely important to me. My work would not have been possible without their understanding and support,” says Dr. Sonntag.” Lynne has stood by my side and been the rock on which I have leaned for the last 43 years.”

He remains an active member of numerous professional organizations, and is Vice-Chairman Emeritus at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, where he has served since 1983.         

Dr. Sonntag was a Professor of Clinical Surgery at the UA and the Vice-Chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at the Barrow Neurological Institute. At Barrow, he also chaired the Spine Section and was the Director of the Residency Program.

Dr. Sonntag received numerous awards throughout his distinguished career. In 2002, he was named the Honored Guest of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, the highest honor paid to a neurosurgeon by his peers. Most recently, he was the recipient of the Distinguished Service Award from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.

Publishing and presenting research are important parts of Dr. Sonntag's career. He has edited six medical books on spine surgery and contributed 100 chapters to various medical books. He’s written 265 articles to refereed journals, 105 articles to non-refereed journals, 78 abstracts, and 47 posters. Additionally, Dr. Sonntag contributed 81 letters, comments and book reviews to professional journals. Just this year his presentations topped 1,000.

T.J. and the Queen of Saudi Arabia

Dr. Sonntag’s recently published book, “Backbone: The Life and Game-Changing Career of a Spinal Neurosurgeon,” is hard to put down, in part because of his blow-by-blow descriptions of illness and accidents followed by life-saving surgeries.

In it he writes: “I knew then that as impossible as it sounded, I was somehow going to reattach that boy’s head to his spine,” referring to a boy named T.J. who walked out of the hospital two months after he’d been hit by a truck on his way to school in 1989.

News organizations worldwide covered T.J.’s story. Dr. Sonntag was already well known in medical circles by the time paramedics brought T.J. to the emergency room, in part because the doctor had been published more than 40 times in professional journals. The mass media coverage catapulted his career to a new level outside of the medical community.

Despite his renown as a neurosurgeon, Dr. Sonntag still fondly recalls the lessons he learned while working on the Reynold’s chicken farm as a boy. “I remain convinced, now more than ever,” the doctor writes at the end of his memoir, “that if a person is honest and works hard— if a person strives to be a Mensch— things do have a way of working out.”