Radio review: Brain surgeon has seen the operating theatre from all angles

Nuala McCann

Desert Island Discs Radio 4

Brain surgeon Henry Marsh is probably one of the few in his profession who did a stint as a hospital porter.

Lifting and settling patients had an impact on his future life – he has seen the operating table from all angles.

He has also been an anxious parent at the receiving end of brain surgery – his son, William, had a brain tumour when he was just a baby. The terrible fear that he had for his child stayed with him and made him the surgeon he became.

It was his honesty and humility that had this listener hooked.

The skills are the easy bit, it's the seriousness of things if they go wrong, he said.

“The thought of the damaged patient and the miserable family after that,” he said. “The consequences of our mistakes are so terrible for our patients.”

And surgeons inevitably make mistakes and have to live with the horrifying consequences.

Marsh spoke very openly about his depression as a student and how he spent a short time in a psychiatric hospital and underwent psychotherapy - something he'd recommend.

There was a twinkle of humour about his choices - we heard Ry Cooder: How can a poor man stand such times and live, we heard Joan Armatrading, Bach and Beethoven.

This was a fascinating insight into a life lived to the full - a candid account of the highs and lows of a human lifespan.

There was a sense of utter humanity, miles from the stereotype of the surgeon as detached and cold.

Perhaps that stereotype is built on self protection, he said. The closer you are to your patients, the more it hurts when things go badly.

This Desert Island Discs was a classic – for the man's wisdom. If you haven't read his memoir, Do No Harm, then this will whet your appetite.

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