Alfred O. Bonati, M.D. is the chief orthopaedic surgeon and founder of The Bonati Spine Institute, the world leader in advanced, precision spine surgery. Based in Pasco County, The Bonati Spine Institute has performed more than 45,000 procedures with more than a 98 percent patient-reported success rate, for conditions such as spinal stenosis, sciatica, herniated, bulging and degenerative discs, whiplash and many others.
What was your early life and upbringing like?
My family is a family of immigrants from Italy, and I was raised in a traditional Italian family. I was born the month that World War II was declared, and like many families, they decided to leave. We went to Chile and then to Bolivia, which was very difficult as the socialist government there made getting ahead impossible. So ultimately, our family started a new life in Chile.
How did you decide you wanted to pursue medicine?
I knew from the age of 6 that I wanted to be a doctor. But, my father wanted me to work in our family’s vineyard, as the oldest of three children. I was determined to study medicine, however, so I left for Spain to pursue undergraduate studies at the Complutense University of Madrid, followed by medical school at the University of Seville.
How did you end up coming to America?
The U.S. was really in need of physicians at that time. I came to Washington, D.C., in 1970, ready to practice as a trained medical doctor. Before that could happen, though, I needed to take the American medical licensing exam – in English, which I didn’t speak. So, I worked as a dishwasher for $50 a week while studying English. I took the exam, passed with a very high score, and started as a medical intern at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md.
Where else have you practiced around the U.S.?
I wanted to get a lot of surgical experience, so I went to Cook County Hospital in Chicago to practice general surgery. In one year there, I performed more surgery and had more cases than nearly anywhere else in my career – it was very busy! From there, I went to the University of Alabama, where I performed neurosurgery. Then, I did a year of general surgery at Georgetown University, followed by five years of orthopaedic training at Wake Forest University. After nine years of postgraduate training, I came to Regional Medical Center at Bayonet Point in Hudson in 1981, before opening The Bonati Spine Institute in 1984.
How did you begin to develop the procedures you’ve become famous for?
I realized that I really wanted to treat the patient’s problem, not just the symptom. From the beginning, my procedures have been arthroscopic in nature – one of the earliest in the nation. With traditional open knee surgery, patients could be on crutches for a month. But with the fast, painless results we were having from my advanced arthroscopic procedures, my patients were walking in one hour.
It was a series of breakthrough moments that led to the Bonati Spine Procedures. I had already gained extensive orthopaedic surgical experience, and had lectured around the world on my results. I had the first breakthrough by inventing the tools and procedures to do arthroscopic shoulder surgery. But then, a Russian surgeon introduced me to a method of operating on the disc – now I had the pathway to the spine. The final breakthrough came when I discovered a company using lasers on knee tissue. We did intensive research and development, and I became the first to receive FDA approval for laser-assisted spine surgery.
Finally – I had the pathway, I had the surgical tools, and I had the precision instrument. Today, we can treat nearly any spine problem with nearly certain success. 98.75 percent success, to be exact. And those are the procedures I train some of America’s best neurosurgeons and orthopaedic surgeons to perform every day at the Bonati Institute. I’m proud that these breakthroughs have changed spine surgery forever.
What’s an early example of your success?
While at Bayonet Point, we had a 92-year-old woman come in needing a hip replacement. Most believed that a patient of that age wouldn’t survive the operation, but I knew that without it, she would die. Other surgeons were unwilling to operate on her, and the anesthesiologist was unwilling to give her general anesthesia. By using local anesthesia and a little-known device called a transelectrical neurostimulator, I performed a pain-free hip replacement and had her walking again in two days – at 92 years old. That’s when I knew I was on to something special.
What’s been your greatest professional challenge?
From before even opening The Bonati Spine Institute I have had critics, because I’ve been on the cutting edge of medical science. Other surgeons, politicians in Tallahassee, the media and even the Board of Medicine have struggled to keep up with my medical advancements.
I have been as much as an inventor as a surgeon. I created the first ambulatory surgical center for orthopaedics in the United States. I was on the forefront of arthroscopic surgery in the early 1980s, and invented shoulder arthroscopy. I pioneered the use of local IV sedation and neurostimulation to relieve pain. I invented revolutionary techniques that have greater than 98 percent success in relieving patients of their back pain. And I succeed where other surgeons and centers have failed, especially with the 65 percent failure rate of spinal fusion performed by other facilities.
With that kind of track record, there are bound to be critics. But even the Board of Medicine has found that allegations against me were actually true advancements of medicine. I feel good about that. So do the thousands of patients we’ve helped.
What motivates you to practice medicine and perform surgery today?
I think about my patients a lot, and the struggles with pain they go through.
I recall one man from Holland who was wheelchair-bound, paralyzed with a supposedly severed spinal cord – the one thing we can’t fix. I agreed to operate on him, but couldn’t guarantee it would work. Using the Bonati Spine Procedures, I discovered he just had extreme scar tissue. I operated, he recovered motion, and before long he was scuba diving in Aruba with his wife.
To know that you can give someone their life back, in as little as one hour, nothing can beat that. Absolutely nothing. That’s why I do this. To hear people tell me, “my pain is gone.”
I’ve operated on professional athletes, celebrities, wounded military veterans and ordinary, everyday people who are suffering with pain. So anyone who’s suffering, before losing hope, should learn about The Bonati Spine Institute. You have nothing to lose but your pain, and your life to gain.