Brain surgery, it's not exactly rocket science... but it is one of those jobs that people can't quite believe you do, and I am usually asked if I am joking. So how did I end up becoming a neurosurgeon? My inspiration to become a surgeon came after watching the movie M*A*S*H with Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould, which portrays the antics of two army surgeons during the Korean war.
For those of you who have not seen the movie, the characters Hawkeye and Trapper are not typical role models, but they did appeal to my personality, and in 1992, I started at Liverpool Medical School. All through medical school, (and I hesitate to write this since it will be in the public domain forever), I wanted to be an orthopaedic surgeon. It was only after doing a junior doctor job in neurosurgery in 2000, that I changed my mind. Ten years later and after many exams, I was appointed a consultant neurosurgeon at The Walton Centre NHS Foundation Trust in Liverpool, subspecialising in brain tumours.
So what is it like being a neurosurgeon? In common with rocket science, neurosurgery sounds more glamorous than it really is. My day starts with the 8am team meeting to discuss the patients referred for a neurosurgery opinion over the previous 24 hours. The Walton Centre serves a population of ~3.5million, and we receive on average 20-30 referrals each day. From 8.30am onwards, each day of my working week is different and consists of outpatient clinics, inpatient ward rounds, operating theatre, team meetings, research meetings and paperwork.
One of my colleagues once gave a talk at a medical meeting titled "Paediatric neurosurgery - the pinnacle of human achievement". This slightly flippant title belies the humbling nature of the speciality. As a neurosurgeon I want my patient's admission to be as routine and mundane as possible. I want my patients to have successful brain tumour surgery and go home. Fortunately for most patients, brain tumour operations proceed as planned with no complications. However, because we are still learning about the complexity of the brain and how it functions, and because each patient is a unique individual, the reaction of the brain to surgery can vary from person to person.
Whilst there is no margin for error during brain surgery, complications do happen, for example, bleeding from the tumour or brain swelling. In these cases the patient may not recover and may be left with permanent neurological deficits such as difficulty speaking or limb weakness as a result of surgery. This is the worst part of being a neurosurgeon.
Being diagnosed with a brain tumour is devastating for patients and families. Unfortunately, many brain tumours are malignant and one of the most difficult things for patients to deal with is uncertainty. I aim to give patients a clear idea of what to expect in hospital and after surgery. Unfortunately things are not always black and white, and I have to work with the information available at the time. But talking to patients, I realise how the patient is often more accepting of the diagnosis and prognosis, than the relatives.
Research forms a significant part of my job. I work with researchers in the UK, Europe and the USA. Unlike many cancers, treatment options for brain tumours are limited. My research is focused on understanding more about how brain tumours grow in the hope that new therapies can be developed in this field.
All the staff at The Walton Centre are dedicated to providing outstanding care to our patients, and I feel privileged to be working in this field.
Brain Hospital: Saving Lives, begins Thursday at 10pm on Channel 5