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HEALTH: 15-Minute Brain Surgery

Local graphic designer Randall Haws was depressed and plagued by nagging, persistent headaches. Finally he found a cure for what ailed him: he drilled a hole in his head.
BORED: Randall Haws says his trepanning has made him feel more relaxed.

Four years ago, Randall Haws felt miserable. Then 31, the computer graphic specialist was putting in long hours at work and had endured a three-year tax audit. A messy divorce two years earlier still had him in a funk (she took the washer, dryer, and the dog). He had just lost his grandfather, the only real father figure he’d ever known. In his spare time, Haws had played the piano, but he’d given that up in favor of lying on his couch, watching television. It all left Haws depressed and plagued by persistent, nagging headaches.

Haws stands 6-foot-5 but speaks softly. Settling into a herringboned sectional sofa in his Cedar Hill home, he explains how he found a way out of his quagmire. One night he saw a 20/20 segment about a handful of people in Utah who used a power drill to remove a small piece of their skulls. The procedure, called trepanning, supposedly cured depression by increasing circulation in the brain. “I thought, Oh, this is crazy,” Haws says. “These people are nuts.”

But Haws later found himself at the library doing research. He learned that trepanning is the oldest known form of neurosurgery. The ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Incas, and other cultures left behind skulls with man-made holes. Just a few years ago, in the banks of the river Thames, archaeologists found a skull belonging to a man who survived the operation—likely carried out with a flint—almost 4,000 years ago.

Haws pored over Homo Sapiens Correctus by Hugo Bart Huges, a Dutchman who drilled his own head in the 1960s after earlier experiments with LSD. Huges believed that trepanning reduced internal pressure on the brain and increased “brainbloodvolume” levels, thereby improving mental performance and raising consciousness.

Then Haws found the web site and, through it, the International Trepanation Advocacy Group. Director Peter Halvorson is a self-trepanning protégé of Huges. (ITAG has fewer than 100 members, of whom about 20 report being trepanned.) Halvorson extolled the benefits of trepanning to Haws—specifically, opening the mind through “cerebral hyperemia” (i.e., increased brain blood flow).

Halvorson, a Pennsylvania tree farmer, believes that creative thinkers naturally have more pliable skulls, and that trepanning offers hope to the rest of us. “If you think of consciousness expansion as being like climbing a high mountain, then trepanation would be a base camp, say one third of the way to the top,” he says. “It’s the place where you live and feel comfortable and become acclimated for the ascent, should you choose to climb higher.” (Halvorson had joined the Utah group to assist in the 20/20 power-drilling episode and later pleaded guilty and received three years probation for performing medicine without a license.)

Mainstream doctors, however, do not concur. Dr. Bruce Mickey is a professor and vice chairman of the neurological surgery department of UT Southwestern Medical Center. “There is no known mechanism by which such a small opening could alter brain blood flow unless there were some pathologic process present, such as a large blood clot, that could be evacuated through the opening,” he says. “There is also no way that such an opening could reduce headaches or relieve depression.” He acknowledges that, in a sterile environment and at the hands of an experienced surgeon, risks from trepanning are low. His suggestion: “Don’t try this at home.”

At first, Haws sought trepanning help from local physicians. Their responses were uniformly discouraging. Then he learned that ITAG had located a physician willing to perform trepanation in a Mexican medical facility. They even offered a discount to patients willing to be documented for scientific study. “Everything seemed really legit,” Haws says. His mother and father, who is a doctor with an alternative-medicine practice, urged him not to go through with it, and his close friends told him he was crazy. But Haws had made up his mind.

He put $2,400 for the surgery plus hotel expenses on his credit card. He signed an informed consent form. And in June 2002, two years after he saw the 20/20 episode, Haws and five others arrived in Monterrey, Mexico. On the first day, he had an MRI at Hospital San Vicente. Day two brought the big event, in a nearby clinic.

The trepanning itself took just 15 minutes. Haws remained conscious for the duration. After injecting local anesthesia, the surgeon made an incision in Haws’ scalp a few inches above his left ear. The doctor cauterized blood vessels and cleaned the skin away from the bone. With the flaps of the incision pinned back, he applied a Codman cranial perforator with a 14-millimeter circular drill bit directly to the skull. The Codman has a sensor and auto-retraction function so as not to damage the brain and its protective meninges layers. Photos of the operation (not for the squeamish) show a clean, round hole in Haws’ head.

“There was no pain,” Haws says. “Just pressure from the doctor drilling and a lot of noise for a few minutes. It sounded like a mini helicopter blade when it was drilling through my skull.”

The next day, Haws had a checkup to be sure everything was in order. Then he flew home wearing a bandage and a baseball cap. Back in Dallas, he had a problem: when doctors heard a trepanation was involved, they would not prescribe follow-up antibiotics or remove the stitches. “I had to anonymously walk into a clinic and just say that I had cut my head to get in to see the doctor,” he says. But eventually the wound healed well.

Now, a year and a half after his surgery, Haws doesn’t even have a visible scar. At his house, he gives me a closer look. “You can actually put your thumb into the hole, and it goes in a quarter inch. There’s no skull bone,” he says, parting his short, dark hair and placing a thumb 3 inches above his left ear.

I step forward and peer at Haws’ scalp. I see his large finger and perhaps the slightest indentation. I don’t necessarily want to touch it. Sure enough, though, it feels just like fontanel, one of the soft spots on a baby’s head. “Right underneath the skin is the dura mater, which covers the brain,” Haws says. “So, obviously, I wouldn’t want to jump up in the attic and catch a nail right there, because that would be catastrophic.”

Most remarkable is the effect the hole in Haws’ head had on his mood. Within hours of his surgery, his headaches vanished, never to return. Today, he seems at ease.

Sallie Simerly has known Haws for six years. “Before the surgery, Randall was one of those very high-strung personality types,” she says. “After this surgery, he became very mellow and levelheaded. He has a surreal sense of peace about him.”

After his surgery, he became ravenous for new information. He soaked up Flash, Maya 3D modeling, and other advanced graphics programs to transform his web site, “I just ate up the technical stuff like junk food,” says Haws, whose formal education stopped at high school. “I could not get enough.” In two years, he’s produced about 20 high-end sites for clients ranging from a lawn-care service to a software consulting firm—all while holding down his corporate day job.

And that would be Haws’ only post-surgical complaint: his restless, hyperactive mind makes it nearly impossible for him to relax unless he’s worked an 18-hour day.

Did the hole in his head really open his mind and jump-start his life? Haws certainly thinks so. “I think it gave me the edge over competition, I really do,” he says. “I can do and create things so new and so original. I built a name for myself that’s really out there. Just an out-of-the-box thinker, out-of-the-box individual.”

But he also acknowledges another possibility. Maybe more than the hole itself, the process of getting the hole made the difference. Anyone who has ever radically changed his hairstyle or gotten a piercing or elective cosmetic surgery knows how uplifting anatomical self-determination can be. Instead of staying in his rut, lying on the couch, watching TV, Haws took action. He took a risk. He had an adventure. And he survived.

“I think the very act of doing something like this and knowing that it was your own decision, no one conned me into it—that alone was the first step,” he says. “Now I feel like I can take on the world.”

Wendy Lyons Sunshine has written for Health and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Photo: Sean McCormick

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