It was Henry Marsh, a celebrated neurosurgeon, who once so perceptively said: ‘what are we if we don’t try to help others…we’re nothing, nothing at all.’ These words were uttered in the closing moments of ‘The English Surgeon’ an emotionally charged BBC film that looks at Marsh’s charitable work in Ukraine.
Marsh, and his fellow surgeon Ivan Petrovich, make a formidable team, despite the limitations placed upon them in Ukraine with respect to equipment and facilities. The film presents each encounter with a patient as an existential experience for both the medics and the patients. Unsurprisingly, Marsh is at his most comfortable when he can offer hope to person sitting opposite; but then there are the inevitable encounters with people where there is, medically speaking, no hope. And then there are the cases where the decision to operate is an agonising one – where the risk of intervening might just be too high. But whatever the situation, Marsh is always looking for ways to help and he is visibly frustrated when he encounters terminal cases, where there is nothing more to be done.
As the film unfolds we see the limitations of medicine and surgery laid bare. Despite the technology and expertise that exists in a consulting room or an operating table, the substantive existential questions remain extant. What is the value of life? How can people find meaning in their lives when they are terminally ill?
These questions are posed, but not answered in ‘The English Surgeon’. More reflection is offered in Marsh’s superb book, recently published: ‘Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery’. Marsh talks candidly about his failures, his disdain for the National Health Service as it is currently constituted and his frustration with what he sees as its overwhelming and desperately stifling bureaucracy.
Marsh’s candid account of the agonies of balancing risk, operating where there is little hope and dealing with the aftermath provides a powerful insight into the life of a neurosurgeon and the ethical dilemmas that they face each every day of their working lives. Most of us would find it incredibly difficult to function in such an environment, where existentialism and ethics are brutally real, rather than abstract concepts we have the luxury of debating at a distance.
The life of a neurosurgeon is unique, but embodies those meaningful words of Albert Pike: ‘What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal’.
Check out ‘The English Surgeon’ on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOwsD38VxwQ and
‘Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery’ on Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Do-No-Harm-Stories-Surgery/dp/0297869876/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1396891701&sr=1-1&keywords=first+do+no+harm