George Jallo, M.D., knows how it feels to not fit in, to not understand. He remembers being a boy who others thought had few prospects for success. He has been that child who looks at his parents’ faces and sees uncertainty as they talk with a teacher or a doctor.
He doesn’t want that for any child.
“We moved here when I was 5,” says Jallo, who was born in Bethlehem and moved to New Jersey from Lebanon. “I didn't speak a word of English. When I look back at my report cards from first and second grade, teachers thought I had no aptitude. It was really just a language barrier, not speaking English. My parents did not speak English, either. We taught ourselves watching Sesame Street.”
Now one of the world’s most renowned pediatric neurosurgeons, Jallo mentors others as physician-in-chief and vice dean at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. He leads in those roles and as medical director of the Institute for Brain Protection Sciences. And most important, he takes a compassionate approach to helping kids with some of the most complex central nervous system conditions imaginable.
“I would not want to see any kids experience what I did, not understanding their doctor, whether it be the pediatrician, internist or dentist,” Jallo says. “I remember my parents talking to doctors, and I'm like, I'm not sure they fully understood what they were saying.
“My parents did everything they could for us. But I was like, I don't want to be in their shoes. I want to strive to be the best I can be and to be able to navigate health care and just life in general.”
That desire drove the son of a seamstress and an electrician to long-term success with Johns Hopkins Medicine, earlier working his way to chief of pediatric neurosurgery at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and medical director of the Institute for Brain Protection Sciences at Johns Hopkins All Children’s in St. Petersburg, Florida. Through the years, he has treated brain and spinal cord tumors in many international patients, granting them the compassion he sought when he was that uncertain little boy. We asked him to reflect on how he got here and what is to come.
After your challenging start, when did you start to feel like you fit in?
Probably third grade. Before that, I remember crying on the first day of school each year. You know that story where the kid grabs his mother's leg? On the first day of school, that was me. The teachers thought I wasn’t very smart. I wasn’t making many friends. I couldn’t communicate.
But, at a very young age, my parents stressed the more education you get the more opportunities you will have.
Did you always want to be a doctor?
Originally, I wanted to go into medicine to be a family practitioner to help others from my community who were emigrating from the Middle East, to not have the same experience that I did as a child. I really thought I was going to be a pediatrician or practice family medicine.
Late in my third year, I decided to go into neurosurgery. It was a very late decision. Honestly, I don’t think I could do that today with how impressive medical students going into pediatric neurosurgery are. Many take a year off to do neuroscience research to become more competitive for a residency position.
In 2015, after a successful career in Baltimore, you came to Florida to lead the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Institute for Brain Protection Sciences, hoping to make it one of the best and most comprehensive neuroscience centers in the world. Can you talk about the progress you’ve made?
We’re headed in the right direction, and there’s more to come. When I came, we hadn’t been ranked in U.S. News & World Report in neurology and neurosurgery. We’ve ranked in three of the last four years and most recently were #27, our highest ranking. We’re recruiting a new surgeon and neurologists who will help us move higher. My goal is to get us as recognized as a national leader in pediatric neurosciences. When I arrived here, I also recognized what our mental health division leaders were stating to administration. There was a significant deficit in the area of pediatric mental health resources, so we want to build the best Center for Behavioral Health. We’ve gone from three psychologists to 13 and have big plans for the future.
What’s something people might find surprising about you?
I speak Aramaic, which is a very old and rare language that most people don’t even know exists today.
The pandemic has affected everyone. You have a family with three kids, including 6-year-old twins. What are you eager to do with them when life becomes more normal?
I enjoy traveling for work or family vacation. I used to travel the world for conferences, invited lectures or vacation — Prague, Rome, Morocco and Japan. We were beginning to take the kids with us on these trips, and they really enjoyed these experiences. We hope to go back to Europe soon for a family vacation.
Do you have any hobbies?
Yes, I have some personal hobbies, but as my time is limited, my hobbies revolve around my kids. I enjoy everything that my kids enjoy, all their activities, baseball, tennis and horseback riding. For me, watching them be happy makes me happy.
Some people may think I’m controlled or reserved, but around my kids, I’m a real softie.