Neurosurgeon Basil Keller, slowed by long COVID, retires


Neurosurgeon Basil Keller wasn’t planning to retire, though he is among the longest practicing physicians in the area. What prompted his decision, after nearly six decades of treating everything from spinal injuries to brain tumors, is that Keller has a patient he can’t seem to cure – himself.

Keller, 84, is suffering from the neurological effects of long covid, having come down with the virus a few days before Christmas. “I got up on Christmas Eve, and it felt like I’d been slammed into a wall. It just knocks all the energy out of you.”

Keller was fully vaccinated, but the booster shot he got just two days before he tested positive would not have had time to kick in with protection. He ended up sick enough to be hospitalized for five days.

In the three months since his hospitalization, COVID-19 symptoms have never completely resolved. Along with severe fatigue, he suffers cognition problems and memory loss, keenly annoying for a doctor who has treated brain-related conditions most of his life, and whose own high-functioning brain has driven his success.

“He’s a very brilliant individual to begin with, and he’s a very nice man,” said Dr. Romas Sakalas, a now-retired neurosurgeon who came to Vero in 1977 when Keller was practicing in Melbourne; they got to know each other in the late 1990s when Keller started covering for Sakalas in the ER of the Vero hospital.

“Whatever he recommended was always conservative and when he did recommend surgery, his patients did well,” said Sakalas. “Everybody had a good vibe with Basil.”

Lately, Keller’s good vibes are fading. The once-outgoing doctor has had to add depression to his long covid self-diagnosis.

In a specialty as complex as neurology – Keller stopped performing surgery more than a decade ago – a physician must sift through layers of information to arrive at a diagnosis and treatment. That mental exertion has become overwhelming, said Keller, known for having a hand in every aspect of patient care, even insisting on reading scans and X-rays himself.

Before covid, he would see seven to eight patients a day, typically spending an hour with each. Mentally sorting through their charts and conversations has become significantly more difficult, Keller said. Interruptions are harder to recover from. And it galls him to have his mind refuse to release a word or phrase in conversation.

This, in a man who once studied astrophysics in his leisure time. Keller, a fanatic about space, came to Florida not for the weather but for the launches from Cape Canaveral.

Space was his first love, growing up in the 1950s in a hamlet in West Virginia. His dad dissuaded him from becoming an astrophysicist claiming his math skills weren’t good enough. “And besides, you’ll starve. You don’t make money as an astrophysicist.”

Instead, he pushed his son to be like his grandfather – a doctor. Ultimately Keller graduated in biology from Villanova University near Philadelphia, where the family had moved. But his pre-med studies only served to push him toward space instead. “I told my dad I just didn’t want to be a physician,” he recalls.

He gave astrophysics one last shot by applying to Princeton; his interview at the observatory was memorable, conducted by a German scientist who had worked with Albert Einstein, he recalled. But in order to be accepted, he would have had to retake all of his undergrad math courses. That was enough to drive Keller back to medicine.

“That’s when I started thinking, well, maybe I’ll be a space doctor.”

Keller earned a medical degree from Sidney Kimmel Medical College on Philadelphia’s Walnut Street, and did a residency at Pennsylvania Hospital. He spent two years in the Air Force before moving to Melbourne in October 1972 to start a neurology clinic – and to be near the Cape.

At the time, as Keller remembers it, there were no neurosurgeons in Melbourne, or for that matter in Vero or Fort Pierce. His practice would eventually grow to include three neurologists and four neurosurgeons, until he left the clinic in the early 2000’s and came to Vero Beach full time. In his career, he performed surgery at Holmes Regional Medical Center, and eventually Sebastian River, Lawnwood and Indian River hospitals.

Within months of opening his private practice in Melbourne, Keller was invited to be present “as a consultant,” he said, at the lift-off of Apollo 17, the final mission to the moon. It was the only night launch in the Apollo program, and half a million people had gathered on the Space Coast to watch it.

Keller had a prime seat in an amphitheater filled with dignitaries; he was not far from where legendary newsman Walter Cronkite was broadcasting. Suddenly, Keller’s pager went off. He raced for a telephone and dialed the number on his beeper, a nurse at Holmes Regional, taking care of one of his patients.

“She wanted to know if she could give the patient an enema,” Keller recalled.

“Here’s three men sitting on top of a rocket blasting off to the moon, and I’m giving the OK for an enema. That brought things down to earth.”

For years, after Keller left his Melbourne practice and moved to Vero Beach, Keller had a home in the Moorings, along with a 45-foot sailboat. Today, Keller lives on a horse farm west of Vero with his wife of 46 years, Donna, who has served as his office manager.

The couple had two daughters, then adopted two sons and a daughter; with four daughters from a prior marriage, Keller is the father of nine. “That’s one reason I kept working for so long. I had a big family to support,” he said.

It was a blow when a dozen years ago, hospital officials told Keller he could no longer perform surgery at what was then the Indian River Medical Center. He was well past retirement age, but he did not give up his practice.

“Even after I stopped doing surgery, I was able to see complex patients and deal with all the demands placed on me. I never had to worry about enough referrals. People respected me because of all my experience still looking at complex cases.

“I was still going full blast until covid hit me,” he said.

Keller tries to keep up with his wife Donna; she is 14 years younger and an avid cyclist and swimmer. But with his energy flagging post-covid, Keller’s workouts are limited to walking on the beach.

Even that doesn’t always go well.

Not long ago, he was walking behind the Ocean Grill. That day, the sand was especially soft and deep, and when he tried to break into a jog, he tripped over his feet. A small crowd saw him go down.

“All the other old people on the boardwalk came running down and stood there looking at me. It was so embarrassing that you just had to make a joke. I said, ‘You don’t have to call anybody. I’m a brain surgeon!’”

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