Tuesday nights on SBS at the moment are medical night, starting with "Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery", a very informative show. But last night I caught the better part of a documentary called "The English Surgeon" which was screened later in the night.
The central subject is Dr. Henry Marsh, a British neurosurgeon who has been making trips, in his own spare time, to the Ukraine to assist an out-of-the-box doctor named Igor Kurilets. I use the term more for his treatment setup than his personality. He works in a country historically dogged by the Communist regime and its manifold ways and structures that have left it with a health system, among other systems, that many western nations would consider barely functioning.
Unfortunately I missed the beginning of the show, unaware that it was on. I was hooked once I stumbled across it, even though it was a quarter done. In one of the first scenes I caught it showed Dr. Marsh, annoyed at the bureaucratic tangle of the UK health system, leaving his computer and stalking off to cool down. He explains to the camera once at home that he is taking medical equipment to the Ukraine on his next trip, displaying drill bits that the UK system disposes of after one use. They have a plastic insert, so cant be re-sterilised, and at £80 for each one, he estimates that they use, in his hospital alone, 10 of them each week. And then they throw them out. £800 a week, £4000 a year, more or less. He and Igor open one up after he arrives in the Ukraine, remove the plastic insert, sterilise it, and it is soon put to good use with a Ryobi cordless drill to remove a brain tumour from a young man suffering epileptic fits.
Dr. Marsh himself proved to be fascinating man of some depth. Throughout the documentary, a young girl named Tanya is mentioned. His face and speech seem to change whenever she is discussed. Dr. Marsh had bought her to the UK a few years before the documentary was shown to remove a tumour that had paralysed the side of her face, after Moscow and Kiev surgeons said it was inoperable. He looked and sounded genuinely haunted by the fact that Tanya had suffered as a result of what he had done. Her quality of life suffered after two operations he performed on her, her death seemingly inevitable by Ukrainian standards, but possibly not by UK standards. He visits her mother at her home at the end of the documentary, wholly welcomed by the family.
He sits in Dr. Kurilets office meeting with patients, honestly and rapidly assessing their chances, realistic that the majority of cases are inoperable or too far developed to render enough assistance because of the systems in place. While a brain scan may only cost $50 to $100, many Ukrainians cannot spare that amount. And when they do manage to, or are forced to through physical problems caused by the tumours, they often result in a dire prognosis. We see a young girl who is already blind from her tumour growth. The grandmother who is told her young granddaughter is inoperable and left with a year or so to live. The 23 year old woman with the spreading tumour that no surgery anywhere could repair. And Marian, the young man with the epileptic seizures who is operated on with the home handyman tools available.
I hope I can see all of this in the future. If you get a chance to watch it, it's well worth seeing.
Handy Henry Marsh at the Times Online
Henry Marsh interview at NPR.org (transcript and download at US National Public Radio)
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