Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Documentary Review: The English Surgeon

As a form of procrastination from revising for my summer exams, I finally got around to watching a documentary I had been wanting to watch for a very long time - 'The English Surgeon'. It's based on Henry Marsh, an eminent neurosurgeon in the UK. Every year since 1992 he makes a pilgrimage to Ukraine and carries out difficult brain surgeries that may have been deemed inoperable there for free. 

The documentary focuses on the neurosurgeon in Ukraine that he works alongside - Igor Kurilets, who became disillusioned with the Ukrainian healthcare system and so set up his own private surgery. The form of 'private healthcare' that Igor has is entirely different to the kind that may be experienced in the UK. The surgery Igor works in has a complete lack of necessary tools and equipment, to the level that Henry brings what he can along with him each time he travels to Ukraine. At one point, the two doctors use a Homebase drill with a correct neurosurgical piece attached at the end to drill open a patients' skull. Henry appears to have a sort of fame in the hospital, and many of the patients he consults flock to be seen by him during his short stay from all over the country. 

Henry Marsh - the focus of The English Surgeon

The main patient the 90-minute movie focuses on is Marian, an extremely poor Ukrainian young man who has discovered he has a large tumour in his brain. However, the nature of his tumour means that Henry and Igor decide the safest way to operate is to keep Marian awake for the duration, as this will allow them to continually check if he is paralysed whilst they carry out their work. Therefore, Marian is only under general anaesthetic the whole time. This is not that ridiculous, however, when you consider that the only body part that would feel pain during the operation is his skin - there are no pain receptors on the actual surface of the brain or skull, or even the layers in between. 

Watching the actual brain surgery take place in the documentary is amazing. It is incredible to watch the surgeons delve in to the big lump of tissue that dictates everything Marian has ever thought, done or felt. Even Henry confesses that it scares and confuses him to think about the fact that the mass of brain can somehow be translated into thought, despite the fact he has been a neurosurgeon for over 30 years. 

Marian before his surgery
Igor and Henry operating on Marian

Whilst the documentary is overwhelmingly uplifting, there are parts that are upsetting to watch, such as the moment Henry examines a brain scan of a 23 year old woman who has been waiting for a consultation. He immediately can see that the tumour is a glioblastoma - a 'tumour' that infiltrates almost the entirety of the brain via glial cells, and is therefore completely inoperable. He has to first tell this to Igor, who then normally translates the information for the patient; who had just spent the consultation joking happily about how she was bitten by a tick and hoped it might just be a complication from that. The two surgeons find it extremely difficult to tell this young woman that she only has a maximum of 3-5 years to live and will before she dies will go entirely blind, and so ask her to return with her mother.

Another part of the documentary tells the story of a young patient Henry tried to treat unsuccessfully when he had previously been in Ukraine. As a result, every year when he returns he and Igor make an emotional visit to the girls' mother. 

If you don't have a interest in brain surgery, the emotional aspect of the documentary is still hugely appealing. The filming is also great and a good reflection of the nature of the film, and has won an Emmy. As a neuroscience student, I was completely enthralled and can honestly say it was one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. I was left with a complete admiration for the work that neurosurgeons carry out (even moreso than I had already), and have since purchased and read Henry's new book - 'Do No Harm'!

Click here for a link to the documentary. 
Click here for a link to Henry's new book. 


  1. Things like this always set me off with a tear or two! So sad when they are powerless to help patients, but it's also really inspirational to see the ways they can make such a huge difference to peoples' lives.

  2. Very moving documentary. I hadn't heard anything about this man and his work before and found this really inspirational. And I didn't know about the lack of pain receptors in the brain and skull. Procrastination can be a good thing! Good luck with the revising.

  3. Although it's not my area of expertise, found this a really interesting read!