Ludvic Zrinzo - like father, like son 

When Ludvic’s father was phoned in the middle of the night on November 23, 1985 it didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary.

Laurence Zrinzo

Ludvic Zrinzo

As Malta’s only neurosurgeon, Laurence Zrinzo was forever on-call.

But for Zrinzo senior and junior the events that were unfolding on an airport runway in their home country would have huge repercussions on their lives.

Egyptair Flight 648 had been forced to land in Malta in what was to become one of the bloodiest hijackings on record. During the 24 hours that they spent negotiating their demands, the hijackers – members of a dissident Palestinian faction – brutally demonstrated their intent. They marched five American and Israeli passengers to the front of the plane and shot them in the head.

After Egyptian commandos stormed the plane, two hijackers and 57 of 92 passengers were killed during the rescue attempt.

But out of this dark day emerged a glimmer of light. Two of the three passengers who had been shot in the head survived their injuries. Laurence Zrinzo was the surgeon who helped save their lives.

"I remember watching it unfold on TV. The hijackers were taking passengers from the plane, shooting them in the head and throwing them out onto the runway every hour," recalls Ludvic who was a teenager at the time.

Up until that day, Ludvic had never seriously considered following in the medical footsteps of his parents (his mother is a neuroradiologist). His passions were maths and physics, not biology.

"I really enjoyed the beauty of equations and atoms but this feat of humanity in a time of tragedy was a wake-up call that neurosurgery was something I should seriously consider," says Ludvic.

Fast forward 27 years and it would be impossible to argue against Ludvic’s chosen path. One of the leading functional neurosurgeons in the NHS, his work has transformed the lives of hundreds of patients with chronic neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or dystonia. For others, who have contemplated suicide due to the severity of their condition, he has truly been a lifesaver.

Ludvic specialises in a technique called deep brain stimulation (DBS). His mentor in DBS is Professor Marwan Hariz who established the NHNN Unit in 2002. Working closely with neurologists, Drs Patricia Limousin and Tom Foltynie, and specialist nurses, Joseph Candelario and Catherine Milabo, the team performed over 100 DBS procedures last year – making it one of the busiest centres in the UK.

During a DBS procedure, an electrode is inserted very precisely into the brain that is linked to a brain pacemaker implanted in the chest or abdominal wall. When the pacemaker is switched on, a very small electric current passes into the brain, blocking the damaging signals that cause the condition.

This procedure is also being trialled for patients with Tourette’s syndrome and has shown promise in treating the most severe cases of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

"Most of neurosurgery is about dealing with problems that affect the structure of the brain – for example, a blood clot or tumour," explains Ludvic. "Functional neurosurgery is different because the brain looks relatively normal but is not working normally. The whole aim is to try to modulate how the brain processes information – improving the patient’s symptoms and quality of life."

Presumably that adds up to a lot of pressure? "As a doctor you have a responsibility to do the very best you can for the patient in front of you. Positive results are very rewarding because of the impact you have on somebody’s life. But you have to accept that you are not a miracle worker – there are limitations to what medical science can achieve."

Ludvic avoids comparisons with his father. He talks about how great advances in technology have transformed neurosurgical practice within a single generation, for example the new iMRI theatre at Queen Square.

Ludvic adds: "I’m almost more proud of what my father achieved. Here in London I am blessed with a huge amount of infrastructure and I work with eminent colleagues. You quickly realise that you cannot take sole credit for your achievements. What my father achieved in a small country, with limited resources in a one-man-band, was pretty amazing."