Neurosurgeon Henry Marsh: Do No Harm, Tuesday 8 March


pp_henry_marshHappy International Women’s Day, everybody! I began Writers Week 2016 with Kim Hill interviewing Henry Marsh at the Michael Fowler Centre.

Marsh is a neurosurgeon whose memoir Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery has been very successful. I was looking forward to this session because fellow surgeon/author Atul Gawande was one of my highlights of the Auckland Writers Festival last year. But whereas Gawande was full of energy, charm and passion, Marsh seemed shy and tired. He does have a beautiful voice, though: one of those lovely posh British voices that make the speaker seem automatically authoritative and trustworthy.

cv_do_no_harmOne of the issues with writers festival sessions focussed on a non-fiction author is that the content of the talk is often exactly the same material that makes up the book: a discussion of the facts that have already been related. Although I haven’t read Do No Harm, I prepared for this session by reading Joshua Rotham’s piece in The New Yorker, and Hill’s questions followed almost exactly the same ground. This had the unfortunate effect of making the whole interview feel a bit like a retread.

Nonetheless, Marsh is an interesting person with a lot to say. He related how he has kept a diary since the age of 12 – full of “morbid adolescent self-interest” – which he then destroyed at age 22, and how his book is a “refashioning” of this diary, written to himself. He spoke of the importance of remembering mistakes, since we learn so much more from them than from successes. He thinks that brain surgery is best performed with colleagues – “the age of great Beethoven-like figures working alone is past” – partly because others are better at seeing our mistakes than we are. He spoke of the importance of openness and honesty, “even though neurosurgeons aren’t shary sort of people”.

On the topic of brain surgery, Marsh said that the operating is the easy bit: the difficulty is in all the decision making, where it’s a question of judgement, not of fact or technical skill. You have to come to terms with the fact that you’re going to have to harm a small number of patients for the greater good of most people. He quoted French doctor René Leriche: “Every surgeon carries within himself a small cemetery, where from time to time he goes to pray.” Marsh describes his own ‘internal cemetery’ as “huge”. His memoir is an examination of this. As Rotham says, “Marsh isn’t interested in the usefulness of error. He is the Knausgaard of neurosurgery: he writes about his errors because he wants to confess them, and because he’s interested in his inner life and how it’s been changed, over time, by the making of mistakes.”

Marsh has spent a lot of time in the Ukraine, helping build neurosurgery capacity in their medical system. There’s even been a documentary made about him: The English Surgeon Although it seems that his relationship with Igor Kurilets has now broken down, he also does pro-bono work in Nepal and Albania (despite having ‘retired’ from medicine last year). His parents helped set up Amnesty International, and Marsh says he’s always had a strong sense of social duty.

The term ‘brain surgery’ always reminds me of That Mitchell and Webb Look sketch:

Near the end of the session Marsh said that the idea that brain surgery is technically more difficult than other forms of surgery is no longer true. Quick as a whip, Hill jumped in with “well it’s not exactly rocket science, is it”. Best line of Writers Week so far.

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Henry Marsh: Do No Harm
Michael Fowler Centre, NZ Writer’s Week, Tuesday 8 March 2016

Book: Do No Harm
Published by Weidenfield & Nicolson
ISBN 9781780225920