On a beautiful spring morning in 1989, neurosurgeon and spine expert Volker Sonntag was just finishing rounds at Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. At that same moment sixteen miles away, a hard-charging boy named TJ veered his bike into the path of a speeding pickup truck. The impact all but killed the boy, leaving him with a shattered leg, severe internal injuries, a massive blood clot near the brain stem, and—but for the fragile spinal cord—a complete separation of the skull from the spine.
This is the riveting story of how Dr. Sonntag's pioneering innovation that day launched him into the forefront of the emerging field of spinal neurosurgery. Surgeon to a Who's Who of royalty, celebrities, and politicians, his clear-eyed accounts of failures and successes, hostile turf wars, media accusations of quackery, political challenges, and cutting-edge technical advances reveal to the reader just what it takes to be a game-changer in one of the world's most harrowing professions.
Revered by residents and fellows for his highly personal approach to teaching and mentorship, and for his example of life balance, in this book Dr. Sonntag shares stories of his youth as a German immigrant in Cold War America that lend insight into how, with humility, sacrifice, honesty, compassion, industry—and humor—an individual can overcome adversity and achieve the American Dream.

Volker K.H. Sonntag, M.D. is Vice Chairman Emeritus at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. A world-renowned spinal neurosurgeon, he made international headlines in 1989 when he reattached a young boy’s head to his spinal column. Consistently voted as one of the Best Doctors in America, Dr. Sonntag has been widely acclaimed for his pioneering contributions to the treatment and understanding of spinal disorders. In 2002, he was named the Honored Guest of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, the highest honor paid to a neurosurgeon by his peers. Retired from practicing neurosurgery since 2010, he is now a sought-after speaker and consultant.

What Readers are Saying about...

Backbone: The Life and Game-Changing Career of a Spinal Neurosurgeon

"Volker Sonntag provides us in Backbone with an intimate and humble story of one of this century's greatest spine surgeons. At various times, Dr. Sonntag's personal journey is heartbreaking, courageous, and even funny but at every turn it is always inspiring."

Allan J. Hamilton, MD
Author of The Scalpel and the Soul
Professor of Neurosurgery, University of Arizona College of Medicine

"A great story highlighting the willingness to move ahead . . . not just miraculously going to Harvard or Oxford, but by adaptation and optimization. This is the story."

Michael M. Crow
President, Arizona State University

"Backbone is an appropriate title for Sonntag’s book outlining his remarkable personal, professional, and career reflections. As this fascinating medical memoir so aptly illustrates, having “backbone” implies unwavering personal integrity, strength, and commitment in an individual. The patient management experiences and professional vignettes he offers in Backbone are worthy of thoughtful reflection."

Mark N. Hadley, MD
Professor of Neurological Surgery and Director of Residency Training
University of Alabama

"It's rare to read a book about neurosurgery that you can't put down. But this saga of Dr. Sonntag's rise from youthful German immigrant during the Cold War to premier neurosurgeon at Barrow Neurological Institute is spellbinding. From the technical details of surgeries to the political turf wars within the hallowed walls of a world-class hospital, his fascinating tales of what it takes to succeed in the high-stakes world of medicine describe a human journey that remains hidden to most of us. This book, a beautifully written window into the human side of a top neurosurgeon, is a must read, not only for all pre-med and med students but also for anyone interested in or involved with medicine."

Suzanne Chudnoff
Financial Systems Analyst

"Backbone is the story of the determination and integrity of a German immigrant who, despite the stigma of his fatherland's sins, rose to become one of America's top neurosurgeons. It would inspire any young person in this country to follow Dr. Sonntag's example of hard work and resolve to live the American dream."

Suzanne Baars, MA, LPC, LMFT, LCDC
In His Image Christian Counseling

"Backbone is a gripping look at the evolution of spinal neurosurgery, but its real impact goes beyond the medical. Historically interesting, inspiring, sometimes humorous, often touching, it is a story that invites readers to examine the ways in which the author's core values of hope, honesty, hard work and humility have shaped their own lives. It is a book, simply put, that instills in readers the desire to become better human beings themselves, no matter what their circumstances."

Sr. Sara Marie Belisle, OSF
Franciscan Sisters of Dillingen


Susan Schwartzman

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