Imagine undergoing surgery, and waking up right in the middle of it. For some surgeons and their patients - that's the way they want it. It's a technique called "awake brain surgery" and it's proving to be very effective.

Most surgeons only talk to their patients before and after the operation. But Dr. Antonio Chiocca at Ohio State University Medical Center talks to his patients during surgery - and they talk right back. He does it while removing a tumor because he needs to know exactly how much tissue he can cut. In these moments, millimeters matter.

"Those are very unique areas that any type of damage could cause somebody to become temporarily, or even permanently impaired," says Chiocca.

So if Dr. Chiocca notices even the slightest change in a patient's speech, he'll stop before there is any damage. But he doesn't just rely on a patient's words. A special wand also gives him remarkable images. Acting like a GPS system, it maps the patient's brain down to the millimeter. By constantly checking real-time images, doctors know exactly where to go in, and what to take out.

Amy Norris recently had the surgery. Within 48 hours, she was back home and back to playing her violin - something she still remembers how to do, even though she hasn't done it in years.

"I just think it's amazing. I know 10 years ago, they wouldn't have been able to do this. And it just amazes me that Dr. Chiocca has that ability," says Norris.

It's obvious the surgery helped Amy, but you can't help but wonder - did it hurt? The answer is no.

"You can do a local anesthetic on the skin, but then the skull and the brain have no pain fibers. That's why we can operate on them while they're awake," says Chiocca.

Doctors will check on Amy every few weeks, but for now, her cancer is gone. In all, doctors have performed two "awake brain surgeries" on Amy. The first time they removed a tumor from her brain the size of a grapefruit. Following her second surgery, an MRI showed no signs of cancer anywhere in her brain.

Ohio State University Medical Center
June 2007