Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery (and a New Year’s Resolution)

‘Do No Harm’, the memoir of neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, is one of my books of the year. Compelling and fascinating, it is articulately and honestly written, it provides unexpected insights into life and death, and it has had more impact on me than anything else I have read this year.

Why, then, did I find it so difficult to read? Why did I make at least three false starts before I managed to get through to the end?

The reason is simple.  Many years ago  I myself underwent emergency brain surgery, and reading ‘Do No Harm’ reminded me of how incredibly lucky I am to be here, how lucky to have survived a procedure which, as Henry Marsh so eloquently reveals, is always filled with risk. That I have survived is entirely due to a NHS neurosurgeon and I will always owe a debt of gratitude both to him and the Health Service he worked for. Over the last forty years I may have experienced a few side effects ( a slight limp on the right side which means I wear out pairs of shoes – or at least the right one – very quickly, and an inability to drive, or at least an inability to satisfy the test examiners that I can) but everything could have been so very very different had it not been for someone like Henry Marsh.

‘Brain surgery’, writes Marsh, managing to invest a statement of the obvious with massive authority, ‘is dangerous’. It is also, he admits, about luck:  ‘there is luck, both good luck and bad luck and as I become more experienced it seems that luck becomes ever more important’. Reading his book  reminded me of just how lucky I am. It also reminded me of the reality of what was actually done to me on that night. Every time Henry Marsh sawed open a skull I felt as if it was mine, and every time he talked of his failures, yet again I found myself counting my blessings.

It was when I read the following, though, that I was most moved: ‘We have achieved most as surgeons when our patients recover completely and forget us completely’. It made me think of all surgeons and all doctors who it is, indeed, so easy to forget from the vantage point of good health. And it, of course, made me think of the neurosurgeon who operated on me all those years ago.  I  wrote a letter to him a few years afterwards, letting him know how I was getting on, and I know he replied.  One of my New Year Resolutions is to track down that letter so that I can drop him another line just to repeat my thanks and let him know that, as a result of reading this extraordinary Henry Marsh book, I’ve been thinking about him. I hope I’m not too late.