Dr. Charles Fager, Horse's Namesake, Dies

Noted neurosurgeon who saved the life of John Nerud inspired his equine namesake.

Dr. Charles Fager, the world-renowned neurosurgeon who saved the life of John Nerud and for whom the immortal Dr. Fager was named, died peacefully at his Boston suburb home April 8. He was 90.

The name Fager has remained prominent through Dr. Fager's son Jeff, who is the chairman of CBS News and executive producer of "60 Minutes."

Dr. Fager continued to perform surgery until the age of 73 and was still seeing patients when he was in his mid-to-late 80s.

In 1965, Nerud was on his pony when he went after a runaway horse on the track. As he reached over to grab the horse, the pony lurched, throwing Nerud head over heels. He landed heavily on his head, but shrugged it off as if nothing had happened.

For the next 36 days, Nerud didn't feel quite right and was unaware a blood clot was forming on his brain. When his wife Charlotte, a Boston native, saw something was dreadfully wrong after he returned from a hunting trip in Nebraska she flew him to the famed Lahey Clinic in Boston, where he was operated on by Dr. Fager.

"He was on death's door and didn't know it," Fager said.

He performed surgery to remove the blood clot and alleviate the severe swelling. But a short while later Nerud began suffering spasms and Fager had to perform a second operation.

While recuperating in the hospital, Nerud was trying to come up with names for two young prospects by Rough'n Tumble. He named the colt out of Cow Girl Minnesota Mac after Tartan Stable owner William McKnight and wanted to name the colt out of Aspidistra after the man who had saved his life.

While sitting in his wheelchair outside his room, still attached to an intravenous unit, Nerud wrote a note of authorization, giving permission to name a horse Dr. Fager. As Fager walked by, Nerud handed him the note and told him to sign it. Fager gave the note with the barely legible handwriting a quick glance and hurriedly signed it, thinking nothing of it.

Little did he know that as he was signing his name to that insignificant note he was also immortalizing it.

"He was a great doctor and was chairman of neurosurgery at Lahey Clinic at the age of 40," said Nerud, who celebrated his 101st birthday in February. "He looked at me and called up his wife, who was having a dinner party at home, and told her, 'I won't be home. I'm afraid this man is going to be in a coma in the morning and if he ever goes in a coma we'll never get him out.' That's why he stayed there and operated on me. He was a very diligent doctor and we remained good friends over the years. I'm glad he decided not to go to that dinner party.

"When I ran Dr. Fager at Rockingham Park in the New Hampshire Sweepstakes I got him to come to the race with Jeff and his brother and sister. I took them to the paddock and brought them over to Dr. Fager's saddling stall. Dr. Fager was a good acting horse so you could take them there. They never forgot that."

Fager was born in 1924 and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. A graduate of Wagner College in Staten Island and New York State University Downstate Medical Center, he served as a flight surgeon and captain in the United States Air Force after completing his general surgery residency at Syracuse University.

He later completed a neurological surgery residency at Lahey Clinic and joined the Neurosurgery Department in 1953, where he spent the remaining 54 years of his career. He served as chair of the Department of Neurosurgery from 1963 to 1984, vice chair of the Board of Governors from 1973 to 1993, member of the Lahey Clinic Foundation Board of Trustees from 1973 to 1993, chair of the Medical Practice Council from 1980 to 1993, and chair of the Division of Surgery from 1982 to 1984. He performed surgery until age 70 and retired in 2007.

"When I came to the clinic, I had been out of medical school for six years," Dr. Fager said, "but I had never seen a group of doctors who were so caring toward their patients. The longer I was at the Clinic, the more I realized that that was just part of Lahey Clinic, and still is. Caring and thoughtfulness for people are such an important part of what we do."

A faculty member of Harvard Medical School, Fager also lectured at top medical schools throughout North and South America. His early interests and publications were in the areas of stereotactic surgery for movement disorders, pituitary ablation for diabetic retinopathy and metastatic cancer, and the intracranial surgery of large pituitary tumors. During the last 20 years of his career, he focused his research on patients who had undergone unsuccessful spinal surgery. His publications dealt with the appropriate selection of patients, the avoidance of unnecessary surgery, the proper indications and operations for surgery, and emphasized the importance of posterior and posterolateral operations for cervical disc lesions.

He served as president of the Neurosurgical Society of America from 1975 to 1976, the New England Neurosurgical Society from 1967 to 1968, and the Boston Society of Neurology and Psychiatry from 1967 to 1968. Throughout his career, he was appointed to multiple national committees on the topic of neurosurgery.

He made more than 130 contributions to medical literature and textbooks. He authored a textbook of neurosurgery, Atlas of Spinal Surgery, and three books, Quality of the Issue, Stop Talking to the Jury, and A Hole in the Wind, which chronicles the story of his equine namesake.

During his career, he was bestowed numerous awards  He received the Dudley Award in Medicine from New York State University Downstate Medical Center. He also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons and Congress of Neurological Surgeons Section on Disorders of the Spine in 1992. He served as a member of the American Board of Neurological Surgery from 1976 to 1983. In 2000, he received the Gold Medal from the Neurological Society of America, which recognizes neurosurgeons who have changed and improved the clinical practice of neurosurgery. Fager received the award for his contributions to increasing the understanding of spinal disorders, defining the indications for surgery, and making treatment of patients with spinal disorders simpler and safer.

Lahey Clinic, now Lahey Hospital & Medical Center, established the Charles A. Fager, MD, Neurosurgery Endowment Fund in 1985 to honor Fager for his outstanding contributions to neurosurgery and to extend his legacy in perpetuity for other neurosurgeons to continue advancements in the field of neurosurgery. This endowment funds the Dr. Charles A. Fager Chair in Neurosurgery, which is currently held by Zoher Ghogawala, MD, FACS. Lahey Hospital & Medical Center also renamed the Legacy Society in 2007, the Dr. Charles A. Fager Legacy Society, for his many professional and philanthropic contributions to the organization, which recognizes donors who have made a planned gift commitment to the future of Lahey Hospital & Medical Center.

He is survived by his wife of 66 years, Margaret, their children Chris, Mary Lou, and Jeff; 10 grandchildren, and one great grandchild. His son Greg died earlier this year.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial contributions be made in memory of Dr. Charles A. Fager to Lahey Hospital & Medical Center, Institutional Advancement, 41 Mall Road, Burlington, MA 01805. A celebration of his life will be held on May 16 in the Alumni Auditorium at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center. A reception will follow.