New chief neurosurgeon at Children’s Hospital brings rock ‘n’ roll spirit to patient care

Children’s Hospital Boston will have a new chief of neurosurgery in October and, perhaps, a new mascot. When Dr. Alan R. Cohen arrives from his post at Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, where he has worked for 17 years, he will bring the spirit of Elvis Presley with him.

Globe readers might remember Cohen. He was the neurosurgeon who operated on Emily Crockett of Worcester, whose journey to study at Harvard after a childhood brain tumor left her blind and partially paralyzed was chronicled by the Globe in a three-part series in 2005.

In this multimedia piece, reporter Thomas Farragher and photojournalist Scott LaPierre capture the spirit of Cohen, the neurosurgeon who plays rock ‘n’ role in the operating room, introduces himself to patients as “Big Al,’’ and occasionally dons a custom-made, rhinestone-studded jumpsuit to deliver a rousing rendition of “Hound Dog.’’


“I actually channel the King,’’ he joked during an interview Tuesday. “I usually set a place for him in the cafeteria.’’

A chat with Cohen is equal parts business and play.

He is serious about the work he will be doing at the hospital, where he plans to develop a new lab and research fellowship focused on minimally invasive brain surgery, changes he hopes will make the hospital the world leader in those techniques.

“It’s a tremendous team that’s there, and it’s an opportunity to help guide the future of the field of pediatric neurosurgery,’’ he said of his new role.

Before he arrives, however, Cohen has some decisions to make: How soon after he arrives can he break out the velvet portrait of the King? And what about those two Elvis bust lamps?

Years ago, a friend gave Cohen the velvet Elvis as a gift, a nod to the music he played during the more difficult surgeries, he said. The theme caught. Now, he has Elvis cups, Elvis saucers, a variety of Elvis figurines, and an Elvis cuckoo clock. His office “looks like an outlet of Graceland,’’ Cohen said.

It’s not all just for show. To Cohen, a little playfulness is critical to patient care. It helps him to cope with the difficult stories he hears from families. And it allows him connect to the children he sees, he said.


“If you can show kids that you’re willing to play with them on their own level, they’ll treat you like one of their own, as well,’’ he said.

Cohen has ties to Boston. He attended Harvard University as an undergraduate and served from 1988 to 1994 as chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Tufts Floating Hospital for Children. He succeeded Dr. R. Michael Scott in that role, and will again follow in his footsteps at Children’s. Scott will remain on staff at the hospital.

Cohen’s wife, Dr. Shenandoah “Dody’’ Robinson, also is a neurosurgeon whose research focuses on causes and treatment of epilepsy. She will join Children’s as well. The couple will be living in Newton, with their two Newfoundland dogs, Morty and Sadie.

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