Henry Marsh CBE, 64, is the senior consultant neurosurgeon at the Atkinson Morley Wing at St George’s Hospital. His work in Ukraine over the last 22 years was the subject of the documentary film The English Surgeon, which won an Emmy in 2010. His widely acclaimed memoir Do No Harm: Tales of Life, Death and Brain Surgery was published in 2014.
I came to medicine relatively late, my first degree being PPE at Oxford (politics, philosophy and economics). I decided to become a doctor partly as a rebellion to what seemed to be my destined future (an academic or administrator of some sort) but also because I like using my hands and medicine seemed to offer a way of combining one’s brain and one’s hands.
I was disillusioned initially when I became a houseman but, by chance, I came across neurosurgery. I knew immediately what I wanted to do – its combination of microscopic surgical techniques, danger, the intellectual fascination (and mystery) of the brain and serious illnesses I found irresistible.
By my stage, after 34 years of neurosurgery, it is the trust patients put in me and trying to deserve it.
Two of the general surgeons at the Royal Free where I was a medical student deeply impressed me with their kindness to patients (the conventional stereotype of the surgeon is of somebody who is rather brusque and offhand) and my first neurosurgical boss impressed me with his highly intelligent and perceptive approach to the work.
Passing both parts of the old FRCS first time and the success of my memoir Do No Harm (in the best seller lists for a few weeks) published this year.
A long and complicated story. (Read the book!) I went out by chance in 1992 and was shocked by the conditions I found. I became a very good friend of a young surgeon there and have been working with him ever since. There is a rawness and directness to life in Ukraine which I find appealing and also I believe I can make much more difference there than I can in the UK. I have been telling people that Ukraine was an important country for many years – now I can say “I told you so” after all the recent troubles.
I don’t like to see my work abroad as charitable – it sounds condescending. I only work in countries where I have found people with whom I can become good friends (Albania and Kurdistan are two other places where I work). I go to these countries to work and enjoy myself and work jointly with colleagues. I am lucky to have a job where one can combine the two although it comes at the price of occasionally very painful episodes. Doctors in wealthy countries will gain some insight into how lucky and spoilt they are when they work in poor countries without the rule of law.
I find that very hard to answer. In neurosurgery one has terrible failures – I have ruined many lives. The triumphs are only triumphant because you also have disasters and some of these were (if you are honest) very much your own fault. Twenty years ago I was probably more arrogant and self-important than I am now and I have learned many lessons (also from divorce as well as from surgical disasters) about my own stupidity and fallibility.
I like writing. I want people to understand that doctors are neither gods nor villains but fallible human beings. I have been very pleased by the reviews.
Alas, yes and I will leave at 65 next year though I intend to go on working for a few more years abroad on a pro bono basis. But I believe deeply in the virtues of ‘socialized healthcare’. I have worked throughout my career training American neurosurgeons and although US healthcare at its best is fantastic it has terrible flaws as well and I would not want the NHS to head in that direction (which I am afraid it is to a certain extent with blind faith in the profit motive and competition as a replacement for professional duty).
With alarm that I will become bored but family and friends assure me that this will not be the case.
It is the challenge of trying to have a bit of rural nature in the middle of the city. I also have a resident fox in my rather unkempt and small back garden which had four cubs two years ago. The honey, I might add, is exceptionally good.
I bought a Jaguar XK150 ten years ago – partly as an investment and had it rebuilt (on the cheap) in Poland. (This involved an amusing drive to Poland in winter in temperatures down to minus 15 with an emergency stop in Berlin to buy extra socks since there were holes in the floor of the car and my toes were getting frostbite – at least they felt as though they were). It has proved – to my surprise – a canny investment but now I need to sell it to pay for my two daughters’ forthcoming weddings. I will miss the way people smile and wave at me as I drive by.
I have a large woodworking workshop with many tools and I have been making furniture all my adult life. My favourite bedtime reading is tool catalogues (my wife calls them “tool porn”) but I have run out of tools to buy.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received or given? If I was ever given any advice I either took no notice or have forgotten it. I think we all have to learn by making our own mistakes, but other people are better spotting our mistakes than we are ourselves. So pick good colleagues and try to learn to observe rather than hurry to judge others. That, and don’t waste time watching TV!