Zhanna Semenova, neurosurgeon

Pediatric neurosurgeon Zhanna Semenova was born in the tiny mountain republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, home to the towering Mount Elbrus (5,642 meters)—a mountain which could well be a symbol of the heights which Semenova has scaled in her career.

In Russia, where most doctors are women, neurosurgery is still considered a male dominion. The long hours in surgery tax even the most robust men. Add to that the immense family and child-rearing duties of women in Russia, and it is not hard to understand why Semenova, a surgeon at the Burdenko Institute of Neurosurgery, is more the exception than the rule.

Semenova, now 40, came to Moscow from the provincial town Nalchik. “As in any family,” she said, “our family also has its relics. These are two books published before the Revolution, a little gold Swiss pocket watch and two silver daggers. It all belonged to my mother’s father, Tembulat Madja. ... I never saw my grandpa alive, but the stories about him are so colorful that I tell them even now to my own son, Tembulat. For example, my grandpa used to say: ‘At the moment of birth, all people are equal.’  I have recalled this wisdom in many concrete situations.”

It would not be a stretch to suggest that such wisdom contributed to Semenova’s desire to make a contribution in pediatric neurosurgery. After graduating from Kabardino-Balkarsky University, Semenova took post-graduate courses at Moscow’s Burdenko Research Institute in Moscow, defending her dissertation in 1990.

For the next five years, the young doctor worked as a neurosurgeon in the Republican Hospital in Kabardino-Balkaria. She traveled throughout the republic, often doing surgery in very difficult situations.  “Short of appropriate equipment, sometimes I had to issue the diagnosis and prescribe treatment just using my little hammer,” she said. “It  was hard, for the doctor bears too much responsibility.” Hoping for something better, Semenova planned to open a pediatric neurosurgery department in the republic’s Children’s Clinical Hospital, even taking upon herself the training of specialists in related fields. She found sponsors, but then in the end, “something didn’t work out,” and the department did not open.

So, in 1995, Semenova decided to return to active scientific work. She had done her doctoral work on craniopharingioma, congenital tumors at the base of the brain which develop in children and lead to blindness and grave hormonal disorders. Removing tumors is a very complex surgery by any standard, but it helps to save the child’s eyesight and life.

For Semenova there is something magical about scientific work. “Each researcher, regardless of his field, discovers his own bicycle, so to speak,” she said. “Sometimes it looks ridiculous to others—from the ‘outside’. But for the researcher himself, this remains a little miracle and he cherishes this perception.” Semenova said she feels particularly thankful in the construction of her bicycle to her mentor and the director of the Burdenko Institute, academician Alexander Konovalov. He was most responsible, she said, for teaching her that neurosurgery is an art, not a science, and one “which knows no boundaries.”

The youngest of three children by 12 years, Semenova expresses particular fondness for her elder brother, the famous Kabardin poet Ruslan Semenov. He gave her, she said, “the sensation of the world’s extreme harmony, which goes beyond the petty problems of day-to-day life.” Her parents, she recalled, were “an amazing pair of very different persons who complemented each other.” At night, Zhanna and her siblings would gather around her parents seeking kudos, each trying to outdo the other with tales of their latest “unbelievable success.”

As if her career achievements are not enough, Semenova is also a single mother of a 12-year-old son. Her marriage, she said, broke up shortly after her son Tembulat was born. Yet no bitterness remains. “This short period of time was too emotionally rich for that,” she said, “our emotions will suffice for many lives.”

As to the future, Semenova hopes to continue her work on craniopharingioma, working on resolving the new issues her previous work has raised. But she also has other dreams. In addition to perfecting her surgical techniques and publishing monographs, she says she also wants “to swim with dolphins and see her son’s homework notebook free of [the teacher’s] negative marks.”

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