UNMC neurosurgeon, Lyal Leibrock, M.D., dies

by Tom O’Connor, UNMC public affairs | November 16, 2005

picture disc.Lyal Leibrock, M.D., professor of surgery and former longtime chief of the section of neurosurgery at UNMC, died Sunday (Nov. 13) at his Omaha home from colon cancer.

Dr. Leibrock died one week before he would have turned 65. A native of Alma, Kan., he served on the UNMC faculty for 27 years and is considered one of the leading neurosurgeons ever in Nebraska.

Visitation will be from 5 to 9 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 16, at the Heafey-Heafey-Hoffman-Dworak-Cutler West Center Chapel, 7805 W. Center Rd. The funeral will be at 1 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 17, at Rejoice Lutheran Church, 2556 S. 138th St. Burial will be at Evergreen Memorial Park Cemetery, 2300 S. 78th St.

Dr. Leibrock attended Concordia Teachers College in Seward, Neb., for two years before finishing his undergraduate degree at California State University at Long Beach. He earned his medical degree at the University of Southern California in 1969 and went on to do a six-year residency in neurosurgery at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md., finishing in June 1976.

After completing his residency training, Dr. Leibrock served as a clinical instructor for two years at the University of California at San Francisco before joining the faculty at UNMC in 1978 as an instructor. He was named assistant professor in 1980, associate professor in 1984, section chief in 1987 and professor in 1993. He served as section chief for 17 years before stepping down at the end of 2004.

"He was a giant in the field of neurosurgey," said Leslie Hellbusch, M.D., a private practice neurosurgeon in Omaha and clinical professor of neurosurgey at UNMC. "He was respected around the country as a good neurosurgeon, someone of high ethics and someone you could trust. He took the toughest neurosurgical cases by referral from other neurosurgeons, and his results were almost always outstanding. He did more than anyone else to promote neurosurgical care across the state and region. Every neurosurgeon in Nebraska considered him a friend."

"This guy was loved," said John Niemann, Ed.D., senior vice president of the University of Nebraska Foundation. "He trained pretty much all the neurosurgeons practicing in Nebraska. There isn't a neurosurgeon in Nebraska that doesn't know Lyal and very few in the country that don't know him. He was far better known nationally than most people realize."

Dr. Niemann said Dr. Leibrock was instrumental in raising money - and donating his own money - to help establish several professorships, chairs and resident funds designed to strengthen the section of neurosurgery. "Lyal had the utmost respect for everyone that succeeded him in neurosurgery at UNMC," Dr. Niemann said. "A few weeks before he died, I went to the hospital and held his hand and asked him, 'What can we do?' He said, 'Finish the chair.' "

The chair - the Lyal G. Leibrock, M.D., FACS, Chair of Neurosurgery - is nearly complete with $750,000 raised toward the ultimate goal of $1 million, Dr. Niemann said.

"Dr. Leibrock was the consummate neurosurgeon. He was an outstanding clinician, surgeon and leader," said William Thorell, M.D., assistant professor in the neurosurgery section who trained under Dr. Leibrock as both a medical student and resident physician. "He and Dr. Hellbusch were instrumental in establishing the neurosurgery training program here in Nebraska. He also partnered with Dr. Gary Moore to develop the skull-based practice, which helped people with conditions such as benign brain tumors.

"He is recognized nationally as a leader in organized neurosurgery. He had a complete understanding of all the economic and legal implications in the business. He was very involved in all the things that neurosurgeons need to know outside the operating room. He understood it better than anybody. Lyal was the guy that kept everyone together - the private practice physicians as well as the academic medicine physicians. He kept everyone connected and organized."

John Treves, M.D., a private practice neurosurgeon in Omaha and assistant professor of neurosurgery at UNMC, was the first resident to go through the neurosurgery training program established by Drs. Leibrock and Hellbusch. He remembered Dr. Leibrock fondly by saying: "If you didn't know him, he would come off as pretty rough on the outside, but on the inside the guy was a teddy bear with a true soft spot for his students, residents and patients.

"He was an excellent surgeon and passed his skills on to many residents who still, I'm sure, do the operations like Lyal would have. I consider him a true and close friend, he'll be greatly missed academically and personally by many."

Dr. Leibrock served as chairman of the Council of State Neurological Societies from 1999 to 2001, and in that capacity, he played a key role in establishing training and organizational guidelines for neurosurgery residency programs.

He was active in the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS), a scientific and educational organization with a membership of more than 6,500 neurosurgeons worldwide. He was slated to become vice president of the AANS this year but declined the position when he became critically ill. In honor of Dr. Leibrock, the AANS has named one portion of its annual conference the Leibrock Leadership Development Conference.

A prodigious researcher, Dr. Leibrock was an author of 74 articles that appeared in scientific journals. He wrote three book chapters and 20 abstracts and made presentations at nearly 150 scientific conferences during his career.

Over the years, Dr. Leibrock helped hundreds of patients with neurological problems, such as spinal cord injuries, back injuries and brain tumors.

One grateful person who held Dr. Leibrock in high esteem was Bob King, editor and publisher of the Holdrege, Neb. Citizen. King's mother, Ruth, had serious back problems in 1998 and could hardly walk. Because Ruth was 81-years-old, the King family was uncertain if surgery was a viable option.

After the family met with Dr. Leibrock, he convinced them that surgery did make sense, and he cited an elderly man in North Platte who had successfully benefited from a similar procedure. Ruth King had her surgery and now - seven years later - is pain-free.

"When I think of Dr. Leibrock, I will always remember him as being approachable," Bob King said. "One time I saw him in the cafeteria, and I wanted to ask him a question. I knew he was very busy, so I was a little reluctant. But, he didn't mind at all. He answered my question and couldn't have been nicer."

Tina Van Cleve, an operating room nurse in the University Tower of The Nebraska Medical Center, has worked in the OR with Dr. Leibrock and dealt with him as her daughter and husband underwent major surgical procedures from him.

"When you work with Dr. Leibrock, he can be a little ornery," Van Cleve said. "When my 10-year-old daughter had a brain tumor and my husband had a ruptured disk, I saw his other side. He was very compassionate and sensitive and really lessened my stress."

He is survived by his wife, Judi; two daughters, Michele, of Omaha, and Elizabeth and husband Troy Hilyard of Scottsbluff, Neb.; a son, Christopher and wife Stacy, of Rapid City, S.D.; a granddaughter, Olivia Hilyard, of Scottsbluff, and a sister, Sylvia Friedman of Guam.

Memorials may be sent to the University of Nebraska Foundation, Fund No. 8349, c/o the Lyal G. Leibrock, M.D., FACS Chair of Neurosurgery, 8712 W. Dodge Rd., Suite 100, Omaha, Neb. 68114. Cards and letters of sympathies can be sent to the family at 9946 Devonshire, Omaha, Neb. 68114.

What others said:

Byers Shaw, Jr., M.D., professor and chairman of the UNMC Department of Surgery:
"Dr. Leibrock was clearly one of the best known academic neurosurgeons of our generation. To me, one of his greatest legacies can be found in the people he trained during his many years at Nebraska. They are among the best of a new generation of neurosurgeons, and they will all tell you how vital Lyal was to their maturation and training. He will be mourned by many and missed by all. We offer our sincere condolences to his family."

David Siebels, physician assistant in section of neurosurgery:
"We all mourn the loss of Dr. Lyal Leibrock. He had tremendous vision for the section of neurosurgery and the training program. He was loved by his patients, colleagues and friends alike. His legacy will live on through the outstanding neurosurgeons he has trained and those whose lives were touched by him."