Now Reading
Dinner with Charlie Teo on life as a brain surgeon

I have long subscribed to the idea that there are simply some things you should avoid doing as an adult, as it will ruin the perception you have of your own intelligence for the foreseeable future. Things like learning how to code a basic website or understanding how gravity works are both on that list. I would usually have put, “having dinner with a neurosurgeon” on there too, but since I did that on Saturday night, I’m now in a position to take that off the list of “Things You Should Never Do If You Don’t Want To Mock Your Intelligence” and add it my long list of “Things I’ve Changed My Mind About”.

So, I had dinner with Charlie Teo. He is an internationally renowned neurosurgeon, a pioneer in keyhole minimally invasive surgical techniques for brain cancer treatment, Founder of the Cure Brain Cancer Foundation, has a very strong handshake and doesn’t eat dessert.

After studying medicine and acupuncture he wanted to be a paediatric surgeon, before getting a taste of neurosurgery and deciding that it was the right fit. Today he dedicates three months every year to pro bono work in developing countries and has sponsored neurosurgeons from developing countries to attend practical courses and medical meetings.

He has been recognised with awards from Rotary International, including the Paul Harris Fellowship and was a finalist in the NSW Australian of the Year awards in 2003 and 2009. In the 2011 Australia Day awards, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia. Though, his success and vision to cure brain cancer is not without controversy.

A brain tumour can steal your ability to talk, to speak, to see. It can even steal your conscious. Brain cancer is indiscriminate in who it attacks, and diagnosis will redefine your life span into weeks and months.

“At medical school you are taught to consult books, colleagues, evaluate quality of life parameters, and then, if the evidence points towards little value in operation, you should withhold the treatment”.

So what happens to a doctor like Teo who acts contrary to the shared advice of books, colleagues and life parameters- to which there is no evidence, and operates on sufferers attempting to buy them more time or even pain relief?

Teo’s attitude to the ethical divide between treating diagnosed, ‘inoperable’ brain tumours is controversial. Pragmatically, no brain tumour is inoperable. We can operate on all tumours, the big question is whether it is worthwhile. Is buying a brain cancer sufferer six more months alive when their diagnosis has seen their future measured in hours and days?

Teo says yes, others say no.

Operating on patients who have been diagnosed inoperable, it isn’t a break through innovation, but it transforms a treatment that is to this point in medical history, only a few people have access to. A disruptive innovation makes something accessible to the masses, and to this argument, Teo is making ‘hope’ and ‘time’ accessible to his patients.

He is questioning the pragmatically assessed ‘value’ of an operation. “If I was still enjoying life and someone told me I had a brain tumour that was inoperable, but I had young children and I wanted to see them grow up, even if it’s only for a few more months and someone else said to me, “well actually I can operate on it, I might be able to buy you some time”” – how, he asks, can we value the ratio between the importance of time for a patient, verses the medical value. It is this shaky ethical dilemma that keeps him in headlines.

Many are inspired by Teo’s ability to personify the industry- he is trying to do this a grass roots level. Teo acclaims the questions that he wants to ask potential medical students when they are interviewing for medical school admission are today explicitly listed on the “Things That You Shouldn’t Ask Students Interviewing For Med School”. Teo wants to know their interests, their passions, their family dynamics, because he believes that a clinical approach to medicine and his field is simply not enough.

In the wise words of Barry White (the soulful 90’s sensation) Teo does, practice what he preaches, famously going beyond the clinical relationship with his patients. He will have dinner at their house, return the favour, he will meet their family and too, attend their funerals. In his mind, “If you maintain a bit of a barrier and that aloofness then it’s not as emotionally taxing, and if you don’t, I think your professional life is extended because of that- so in some ways it’s a self preservation”. This approach to practice is a breath of fresh air for many, and seen as ‘disruptive’ to many in the industry.

We only need to look back a few a years to be reminded of the success that comes through innovative disruption. Look at Apple, they wanted to make computers accessible; look at Google, they wanted to make information accessible; and Ebay, retail commerce – each of these brands used technological innovation to disrupt their industry, to the benefit of millions.

Here’s a quick fact: a $25 million dollar study revealed that mobile phones have a direct impact on your propensity to develop brain cancer, a 1 in 18 chance actually. After Teo handed me his phone to read the study highlights for myself, I was pretty close to throwing his Samsung in the bin, when he mentioned in his key note speech, “ I believe we can increase the survival rate of brain tumours to 50% in the foreseeable future.”

Now, back to that innovation thing. As a society we don’t buy products, ideas, technologies, or features alone – we buy meanings. The more meaningful something is, the more we are attracted to it. Innovation has typically been seen as a matter of “problem solving”. Firms compete to provide better solutions to problems. Teo is a self-proclaimed change maker in the medical industry, and many patients around the world are buying his medical innovation, hope. Tonight he tells me that, “We have more than seven billion neurons in the brain yet we only know what about 10 per cent of them do,” and he believes that we can cure brain cancer, and you know what- I am sold.

Controversial, yes.

Innovative, yes.

For the good of society, yes.

This mix of attributes make his journey to medical disruption a difficult one. When medical professionals say that he must stop offering secondary opinions that are contrary to the first, he says that we must work as a society to cure brain cancer, and is arguably working harder than anyone else to do so.

Saturday’s event was a testament to that. After preforming two brain surgeries on a Saturday, Teo attended Indeed’s Vivid event for Disruptive Ideas where all proceeds were to go to his charity, Cure Brain Cancer Foundation.

I am about to join the pack of the most resented people on social media, the ‘change makers’, but in what Teo argues is an industry where doctors are whittling down an ivory branch from their tower to hit him with, I am going to side with the value of innovation, and acknowledge the bravery that it takes to assert change.

On Saturday night I heard of people developing artificial intelligence to help the disabled; people developing sustainable technology for our aging population and grossly overpopulated planet, and I sat thinking, “Thank god, someone is looking after this stuff” – because I obviously can’t. So while I did leave feeling a little inadequate, the point of this article isn’t to make you question your contribution to society, but to drive action at the core. Simply understanding what innovation looks like in the neurosurgical world can drive change, educate yourself and if you believe in the value of disruption, donate to the people who can.

A huge thank you to the Indeed team who sponsored this Vivid Sydney event, and blew my mind, with a night of disruptive ideas.


What's Your Reaction?
In Love
Not Sure
Scroll To Top