Profile: St. Luke's neurosurgeon is battle-tested

Dr. Jeannette Liu once served at base in Afghanistan

Dr. Jeannette Liu is the newest neurosurgeon at Unity Point Health St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Dr. Jeannette Liu is the newest neurosurgeon at Unity Point Health St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Dr. Jeannette Liu has grit.

The new physician at UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital spent nearly five months at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan in 2008, where she was the only neurosurgeon on the ground. She cared for American soldiers, Afghan nationals and even members of the Taliban.

“I was on call 24/7 the entire time I was there,” she said. “There were times I was in the middle of a surgery and a plane would go down — I would finish up and pass off that surgery to someone else. You make do because there’s no backup neurosurgeon. It’s adapt or perish. It builds character, let me tell you. It builds grit.”

Liu has extensive experience in diagnosing and treating nervous system disorders, including brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerve conditions. She specializes in degenerative spinal diseases affecting the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine; herniated discs; brain tumors; spine tumors; spinal cord injuries and infection; neurotrauma affecting the brain and spine; and carpal tunnel and cubital tunnel syndromes.

Liu started at St. Luke’s in September after working in Texas for the past several years. It was important to her to live in a smaller community, she said, with a need for a neurosurgeon. She works alongside Dr. Mary Louise Hlavin.

“I wanted to have a practice partner that I can be compatible with.” she said. “We approach patient care and surgery very similarly — it’s great having a practice partner to collaborate and work with.”

Liu always knew she wanted to be a doctor, though she didn’t come from a physician family. Her parents were immigrants from China — her father was a scientist and her mother was a registered dietitian. Growing up, Liu was a gymnast and once had to see an orthopedic surgeon.

“I was fascinated by the skeleton models,” she said, adding for quite some time she thought she’d go into sports medicine. It wasn’t until she studied biology at Brown University that she became interested in neuroscience.


“You go through training and realize that if you disrupt one small part of the brain it effects the entire left or right hand side of body,” she said. “A small thing in the body can affect someone’s functional level — that’s really what brought me to it.”

She then attended medical school at Johns Hopkins University and completed her residency in neurosurgery at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

Liu also served in the U.S. Air Force as chief of neurosurgery at David Grant Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base in California, Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska and Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.

“Performing combat neurosurgery has changed my approach to patient care,” she said. “The goal is to save everybody’s life. It’s a very aggressive way of taking care of patients. ... in Afghanistan the philosophy is do all that you can for any patient.”

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