Emirati neurosurgeon returns to carry out groundbreaking robotic spine surgery

US-trained and based consultant Dr Abdul Salam Al Belushi aims to eventually come back full time to the UAE to train other surgeons

Dr Abdul Salam Al Belushi is one of the UAE's most accomplished surgeons. Khushnum Bhandari / The National
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An Emirati neurosurgeon has carried out leading-edge robotic spinal operation in Abu Dhabi, a first-of-its-kind procedure for the Middle East and Africa.

The operation by Dr Abdul Salam Al Belushi is the start of what is hoped will be wider use of robotic technology in UAE neurosurgery, with surgeons in the country trained in the technique.

For Dr Al Belushi himself, undertaking the work in his home nation is a major milestone after 25 years spent training and practicing as a neurosurgeon in the US.

“This is the first place in the entire Middle East and Africa where this surgery has been conducted [and] by an Emirati neurosurgeon,” he said.

You cannot beat the feeling of a life-transforming surgery for a patient now able to carry out a normal life who would have otherwise lived the life of a paraplegic
Dr Abdul Salam Al Belushi

Rather than carrying out the operation freehand, surgeons carrying out robotic surgery are assisted by robots that help them place pedicle screw instruments, which are metal objects used during minimally invasive spinal surgery, “exactly where they belong”.

There are many advantages to robotic surgery, Dr Al Belushi said, including precision, lower rates of complications, less bleeding, quicker recovery, shorter hospital stays and a reduced likelihood that additional operations will be needed.

“It’s the next iteration of minimally invasive spinal surgery, which is transforming the world of spinal surgery,” said Dr Abdul Salam, who began carrying out robotic surgery in 2018.

“It’s a humbling opportunity for me to represent my country at the highest level and to see the leadership of the country embracing technology available in very few countries in the world, to make it available to the Emirati and the local population.”

Dr Al Belushi, a fellow of the American Society of Neurosurgeons, said he wished to express his “sincere gratitude” to President Sheikh Mohamed for his “generous support in making history” in Abu Dhabi.

“The vision of the leadership is to set the highest standard of health care, and allow others in the region and from far to seek the UAE as a healthcare hub and to embrace medical tourism,” he said.

Ultimately, Dr Al Belushi, who studied and worked for 16 years in the US to become a neurosurgeon and has been working as a consultant neurosurgeon in the US since finishing his training, hopes to move back to the UAE full time and to train surgeons here to carry out robotic surgery.

He moved to the US when he was 18 to complete an undergraduate degree in Kentucky and medical school in Ohio.

He undertook a one-year medical internship at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio before six years of neurosurgery training at the University of Louisville, followed by a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

He lives in Dallas, Texas and carries out about 450 surgeries a year at several hospitals in the area.

About 85 per cent of his work is spinal surgery and around 15 per cent brain surgery, and his patients have ranged in age from 17 to 90 years.

While the training to become a neurosurgeon is long and demanding, Dr Al Belushi said the work was highly rewarding as it offered the chance to transform lives.

For example, a women in her 20s who had been in a car accident and whose legs were paralysed from a spine fracture was able to regain complete function as a result of a highly risky and complex operation carried out by Dr Al Belushi.

“You cannot beat the feeling of a life-transforming surgery for a patient now able to carry out a normal life who would have otherwise lived the life of a paraplegic,” he said.

As well as pioneering the use of robotic surgery in the UAE, Dr Al Belushi is also looking to use stem cell therapy to help regenerate spinal discs, which are pads between the vertebrae, in people with lumbar disc disease, where the discs bulge out from the spine.

Stem cells, which are produced by bone marrow, have yet to turn into any particular specialised type of cell. They can be injected into the discs of the spine to repair damage from disease.

Dr Al Belushi is thankful to Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, Minister of Tolerance and Co-existence, for his support in the future use of stem cell therapy in the UAE.

Updated: August 01, 2022, 7:12 AM