Dr Henry Marsh ‘Brain surgery is bomb disposal work for cowards’

As heard on The Ryan Tubridy Show

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Not many of us like to talk about death. Fewer still will actually prepare for it in any meaningful way.

Neurosurgeon Henry Marsh has taken the unusual steps of preparing for his own with a home “suicide kit”, complete with a few lethal drugs he has acquired over the years.

As Dr Marsh told Ryan Tubridy on Tuesday, a lifetime of working in neurosurgery has taught him a few universal truths. “Everyday is a story of someone dropping dead,” he said, “One is lucky to be alive and well.”

Luck had a lot to do with his success, according to Marsh. A dropout of Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, he ran away after he had “an unhappy love affair with an older woman”. He ended up getting a job as an operating theatre porter, where he was intrigued watching the surgeon’s work on the brain. He was accepted back to Oxford to study medicine shortly after.

Now nearing the end of his career as a distinguished neurosurgeon, Marsh has written a new book called Admissions, in which he reflects on a life in surgery. It’s a follow-up to his first memoir, Do Not Harm, which was a bestseller when it was published in 2014.

As he explained, neurosurgery is largely about balancing probability in an organ that is still a mystery to those who work with it every day. “We really understand very little about how our brains work,” he said, “I had this terribly naive idea that brain surgeons were very clever and wise because they handled the brain”

“The brain is the most complicated thing in the known universe. We know the less about the brain than cosmology.”

However working with the brain has taught him a lot about the human condition.

“You learn a lot about one’s own suffering, one’s own fallibility, about how easily doctors become corrupted by power. You learn about the enormous asymmetry of the doctor-patient relationship.”

Surgeons are often drawn to the career for excitement, he said, which stems from the danger and uncertainty of the work. “The dividing line between excitement and anxiety is impossible,” he said. “Brain surgery is bomb disposal work for cowards,” Patients, however, can’t be allowed to pick up on this, so surgeons have to learn to hide their own fear.

“We learn early on, almost unconsciously, to lie to patients. We have to because there’s nothing more frightening for a patient than an anxious doctor.”

You can listen back to the full interview here.

© The Listener 2017

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