You climb into your warm bed at 11 pm and set an alarm for a 6 am wake up. You’re both excited and nervous – tomorrow you’re gonna watch brain surgery for the first time. You want to get there early and appear keen to the surgeon because half of medical school involves pretending you’re not a slacker. So you try and have an early night.
Except of course it doesn’t work, because you haven’t slept at 11pm for weeks and your mind’s pretty restless. You toss and turn like a salad for a couple hours before finally drifting off. You wake up to the sound of your alarm, which over the years of use has conditioned you to hate it more than any sound in the world, even more than the sound of your mum nagging you. You hit the snooze button, the second most dangerous button in mankind besides the one that launches nuclear weapons. And you say the magic words, five more minutes…
You wake up with a jolt and notice immediately that there’s too much sunlight. You check the time. 7.30 am. Horror paralyses you, and then makes you leap out of bed. You perform your morning routine of brushing your teeth, getting dressed and packing your bags in record speed. You would kill for coffee, but there’s no one around to kill so you have to skip it. Finally you decide you’re ready, so you get you bike and cycle to the hospital. You think about what time you’ll arrive. 8.00 isn’t so bad, you tell yourself, until you realise it’s going to take you awhile to find the theatre you’re supposed to be in. If I crash this bike, maybe the ambulance will take me straight to the right theatre?
You finally arrive, and park your bike. You semi skip, semi walk into the concrete maze that is Addenbrookes hospital. There are a million signs that point in a jillion directions. You follow the one that says Main Theatres. You walk past Starbucks, the sweet smell of fresh roasted beans convincing you that you’re already going to be late, so why not just stay for a drink? You keep your head down and try and not look that way.
You find the theatres and change into a pair of scrubs that fit you like a teabag. You look at the list and locate your surgeon’s name. It’s right around the corner. You look into the window and for the first time in the morning you are relieved – they haven’t started!
You introduce yourself to the theatre staff. They smile warmly and put you at ease. You look around at all the fancy, million dollar equipment that you have no idea do what. Possibly, in the right configuration, they will form a transformer. You think about the hilarity of the image of Optimus Prime attempting brain surgery when suddenly, the main event arrives.
It’s Mr Surgeon, first name Neuro. Immediately everyone moves at a quicker pace. He sees you and smiles, and you introduce yourself. “Good,” he says, and then he leaves. Apparently that’s all he needed to know. Within fifteen minutes the patient is wheeled in, out cold and intubated. The show is about to start.
Mr Surgeon re enters, dawning a surgical gown and gloves with a funny looking cap. “We’ll be doing an endoscopic fenetration of a ventricular cyst,” he says to you, and you nod in agreement. In reality you know what those words are but not in that order. The patient is prepped. Miles of cloth are draped over, exposing just the head. After a quick shave, and sterilisation, the operation begins.
This is where all your grumpiness, anxiety and craving for caffeine disappear as you realise what they’re trying to do. They’re drilling a hole into a person’s head and sticking a needle into it. On purpose. And for the patient’s benefit, who only agreed to the procedure just because the surgeon is world renowned and they call it ‘endoscopic fenestration of a ventricular cyst’ rather than its real name, ‘the procedure where we stick a needle into your brain in the right spot so that you won’t die.’
Mr Surgeon sticks a camera down into the brain. You see arteries and nerves that, if they were even slightly nicked, would cause permanent disability or a quick death. Their needle comes within milimetres of these structures. You feel like if you breathed too hard you could possibly create an air disturbance and nudge the needle the wrong way. You can’t believe that they’re doing this. You can’t believe that it’s even humanly possible.
The cyst wall is punctured by the needle, allowing it to be drained naturally by the brain’s ventricular system. The operation is over. They remove the needles and tubes out of the man’s brain. Fluid is gushing out of the hole like a tap, but you don’t see any blood. That’s probably a good sign, because generally bleeding in the brain is something quite undesirable. They close up the 1 cm hole in the patient’s skull and do a nice suture. You remember to breath again.
Mr Surgeon comes and talks to you. “Any questions?” he asked, very non-chalant about the fact that moments ago he was handling the inside of a man’s skull. You’re too amazed to think of any questions. It’s like coming off a rollercoaster, where the only thing going through your mind is wow, over and over again.
You thank him for letting you watch, and he nods in agreement. You leave the theatre fully awake, your coffee craving gone. It’s 10 a.m in the morning, and you realise that thanks to modern medicine you probably just saw someone’s life being saved. Today was a special day for that patient. And it was also a pretty special day for you.