Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"Do No Harm"

This week's Independent News & Media column.

Michael Commane
A friend suggested I read 'Do No Harm' by Henry Marsh. 

It's a gem. Marsh is a 67-year-old neurosurgeon, still doing occasional surgery in  Atkinson Morley's/St George's Hospital in London, where he has been working as a consultant neurosurgeon since 1987. These days he is working in Ukraine and Nepal.

Two documentaries have been made about him and he received a CBE in 2010.

Last Tuesday Ryan Tubridy interviewed him on his RTE Radio 1 morning show. 

I remember once hearing Maeve Binchy say that it's a great skill to write as you talk. And the moment I heard Marsh on the Turbidy Show it was so clear to see that he writes just as he talks.

He comes across as a lovely man. Reading the book and listening to him on radio I found myself being enthused to do a better job at my own work. Nothing 'grand' or pompous about him. Indeed he told Turbridy that it's easy for doctors to get corrupted by power.

His latest book 'Admissions' is a personal follow-up where he looks back on a life in medicine.

"Do No Harm' is a diary-style collection of accounts of different operations he has performed. It's the perfect book to carry with you for a bus or train journey as you can dip in and out of it. Each story is a unit in itself.

His genuine interest and compassion for his patients is striking. On one occasion he is heading to Heathrow to go on a short holiday with his wife when he gets a call from the hospital. He leaves the motorway and heads to the hospital.

He recalls how the working hours of junior doctors were reduced in the UK. It was believed that hospital doctors were overworked and patients' lives were at risk. But Marsh saw the change as having some negative results. 

"It seemed to me that this had lost the sense of importance and belonging that came with working the long hours of the past," he writes. I know exactly what he means. When I was at 'The Kerryman' we worked on Tuesdays until midnight. We complained but there was a great sense of camaraderie, 'importance' too.

The book is so well written. Before studying medicine he did a primary degree in politics, philosophy and economics. Obviously his dabbling in philosophy gave him  an entree into writing. 

To say it's a 'page turner' is one of those cliches that easily loses its meaning but having read a few short sentences of this book it's difficult not to keep reading.

Anyone who has anything at all to do with sick and fragile people, and that includes most of us, this book gives a fabulous insight into aspects of the world of medicine. Marsh stresses that he's no god. Nor does he want people to see him as such.

He keeps fit, runs approximately 45 kilometres a week and  has no trouble telling Ryan Tubridy that his exercise campaign keeps depression at bay.

Reading the book and listening to Henry Marsh talk I felt he was writing and talking to me. That's always a sign of genius.

While writing this column I met a young doctor who worked with Marsh in an operating theatre in a London hospital and he told me clearly and emphatically that he is a great man and a superb surgeon. No time for nonsense or any sort of pomposity. He hints too that he's 'different'. 

Conformists, status quo people can be so boring, silly too.

I recommend you read Henry Marsh, a man of skill, hope and humanity.

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