Belfast surgeon on Treasure Island life with Bear Grylls
Belfast surgeon Mano Shanmuganathan talks about life on Channel 4's Treasure Island with Bear Grylls and how the survival experience has changed his life for the better
ON A daily basis any consultant neurosurgeon makes life-changing decisions that will impact upon his or her patients but Belfast-based Mano Shanmuganathan's exploits with hardcore TV adventurer Bear Grylls – currently being broadcast on Channel 4 – might just give him an extra edge.
His experience of being marooned for 35 days on a remote tropical island, battling for survival with 11 other castaways during filming of survival series Treasure Island "has helped in clarity of thinking and decision making”, Mano says.
The 42-year-old is one of two paediatric neurosurgeons that serve Northern Ireland. As well as being based at Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, he deals with adult patients with conditions relating to both brain and spine in the Royal Victoria Hospital and Kingsbridge Private Hospital.
Born in London, he has worked in Belfast for the past five years, performing many pioneering operations, including operating on a baby born with encephalocele, where part of her brain was located outside of her skull.
“I am very aware that my job gives a certain uniqueness to me. Not many see the back of a two-year old's brainstem and have to make decisions about removing tumours and if you don't do it, the child may die. If you do do it, the child may be left with significant problems,” says Mano, who says he's seen a noticeable improvement in his work since returning home.
“The operations that I do that took me a long time have taken less time now. I just feel like there's additional clarity of thoughts in terms of operating; there’s more confidence in who I am and what I can do.”
Physically, Mano has also reaped the benefits. Living on a diet that consisted mainly of coconuts and winkles during filming of the series, he lost three stone in weight and his blood pressure and cholesterol levels dropped significantly.
The father-of-two is proud of the fact that since returning home, he has managed to maintain that weight loss and lead a healthy lifestyle, amid his busy work and family commitments.
“Going on the show was a mental challenge. I wanted to know that if a plane crashed and I was on an island, could I survive it," he tells me. “I was given an opportunity to make a decision about where I was headed in my life, physically, mentally. I had that ‘control, alt, del’ moment where I reset and it's reset me for the better.
“When I came off the island I looked ill and my body felt awful. I lost over 20 kilos in 35 days, but that wasn’t healthy. I worked with a trainer to achieve a healthy level of fitness and build muscle gain."
Now he has built “achievable fitness” into his daily regime – including running or cycling five miles to and from work. He encourages his patients to do likewise, as well as taking time away from screens.
“A digital detox is very difficult but we can all do it from time to time. In fact it’s essential,” the doctor advises.
As the medic on the island, Mano had to be able to provide basic medical treatment and care to the 'islanders', including assessing them for dehydration and treating one contestant who defied the rules and drank contaminated water.
And although he was there when presenter Bear Grylls was stung by a bee and had an allergic reaction, he says he can’t take any credit for “saving his life” – as reported in some media.
"What actually happened is we were on the boat out to the island and Bear was stung by a bee. He knew he was allergic to some insects and carries an EpiPen, and one of the safety team medics on board administered it to him before we continued.
“It’s ironic that Bear, the survivalist, the guy we are all dependent on, has an Achilles heel – something that will hurt, destroy and potentially kill him. It illustrated how we are all vulnerable.”
Popular Channel 4 reality series The Island with Bear Grylls has been airing since 2014 but this year, renamed Treasure Island, the show had the added twist of £100,000 in cash having been hidden across the island for the contestants to find – something Mano didn’t realise until he had been accepted to take part.
“We went on there with the premise it was about survival, and they turned it into Treasure Island,” he says.
While some contestants, such as former Royal Marines Commando Marco, were fixated on finding the loot, Mano proved to be Mr Practical focusing on the essentials of finding shelter and a water source.
“There’s no doubt money affects people’s perception of survival. We were hungry, thirsty, tired, our bodies were bitten, ravaged, stung and every emotion was accentuated. And when you are like that money has no relevance – it won’t buy you a precious water source.”
And how far would he have gone to survive? “We would have eaten anything – apart from humans,” he laughs.
Refusing to reveal how much money he came away with himself, Mano donated a significant proportion of his ‘treasure’ to Helping Hands Charity, which helps purchase equipment and facilities for patients and their families at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.
“I worked in Great Ormond Street Hospital for over a year and I’ve supported the tremendous work their charity does, but I’m proud of Belfast and our children’s hospital. So my driver for trying to find the money was to help the patients and their families. What I was amazed by, by doing that and being open about that, other people gave money towards the charity.”
Mano is also hopeful that he can persuade Bear Grylls, who was raised in Donaghadee, Co Down, to come over to Belfast for a fundraising event in the near future.
So what adventure has Mano set his sights on the future?
“There’s always been a 'next' for me – getting to med school, becoming a doctor, neurosurgeon, paediatric neurosurgeon and then The Island. But the experience has made me appreciate family and life, who I am as a person and the now.
“I’m sure there will be something – whether that’s raising money for the charity, pushing the medical boundaries and innovating here in Belfast or just encouraging people to do achievable fitness to allow them to function better in life.”
Mano’s mental attitude to the programme and his ability to now have more clarity of thought to deal with intense operations has been applauded by Bear Grylls himself.
“That's the main thing – you're less clouded by crap. What a waste of energy all these envy and greed emotions are for all of us. I love that story of Mano, that's great,” Grylls said.
And how does Mano feel to hear Bear’s praise?
“It’s amazing when Bear, who has worked with world leaders and is the head of the Scout Association, says that about you. I feel the same privilege when I operate on a child and the parents turn around and thank me. It’s a great feeling; but I’m only doing my job.”
:: Treasure Island with Bear Grylls continues on Sunday September 22 at 9pm on Channel 4.