Henry Marsh returns to the institute created by his neurosurgeon colleague Upendra Devkota

Henry Marsh is a pioneering English neurosurgeon and the author of two widely acclaimed memoirs, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery and Admissions: A life in brain surgery. He was a colleague and friend of the late Upendra Devkota. Nepali Times caught up with Marsh at the Upendra Devkota Memorial National Institute Of Neurological And Allied Sciences in Kathmandu, where he teaches post-retirement.


Nepali Times: How did your involvement in Nepal start?

Henry Marsh: Professor Devkota and I were neurosurgical trainees together in London more than 35 years ago. We became quite good friends then, and when I retired from working fulltime for the National Health Service in Britain four year ago, I really wasn’t ready to stop working. I wrote to the professor, who’s known to all his English friends as Dev, and I said, “Would you like me to come out to Kathmandu and help train some of your team?” and he said,“Please come”. This is now my fifth visit over the last four years. Tragically he died last year, and everything therefore changed profoundly.

Why were you drawn to Nepal?

I was drawn because I like seeing the world. A lot of the potential privileges you have as a doctor is that you have a specialised set of skills which transfer over the world and English is really the international language of medicine.

The great privilege of working in a cooperative professional way is that you get a much better insight into the country than if you are merely a tourist. For me, it is true travel but it is work – it is not easy always, and if you come to a country like Nepal to help your colleagues, you have to come again. You can’t just sort of dive in and then dive out again. It calls for a fairly major commitment, both in terms of time and financially and sort of emotionally as well.

What do you remember most about Dr Upendra Devkota?

The man was just this little ball of fire – he was extraordinarily energetic. There was never a dull moment with him. He was an extraordinarily dynamic person and to create an entire specialist neurosurgical hospital more or less from scratch was a quite extraordinary achievement.

The problem with great dynamic individuals is the succession problem and of course none of us expected him to die at the relatively young age he did and really quite suddenly. I remember before his illness, sitting down with him in his beautiful garden and saying “What happens if you drop dead tomorrow? What will happen to the hospital?” Fortunately, he had some very good trainees and in recent years he had been giving them more and more, not exactly independence, but they were doing more and more of the work so they were fortunately able to take over the workload when he fell ill and they’ve coped remarkably well.

I was involved a bit in helping them get better and training them. I take some personal pride in that as well. I was watching one of the senior ones here doing a very difficult operation a few days ago and it really was a joy to watch. He was using a microscope and he was doing a very difficult case – I was watching on a computer monitor and he really did it very beautifully. As a trainer, any senior doctors will tell you in a funny sort of way you get more pleasure from all the people you’ve trained and seeing their success rather than all the, in my case tens and thousands, patients I’ve treated over the years of my career.

Henry Marsh. Photo: SAKINA ABIDI

What are the challenges of specialisation in Nepal?

It’s not unique to Nepal by any way, but the problem is this: if you have a relatively impoverished government and if people are reluctant to pay taxes, it’s very hard for the government to be able to afford good quality healthcare.

Therefore, doctors working in expensive specialist areas like neurosurgery end up setting up their own private hospitals. This has happened in India, in Sudan which I know well, it’s happening in Ukraine and it’s happening here. You then end up with all these separate private hospitals which are basically locked in economic competition against each other. They all profess to be all working happily together for the greater good but it’s very difficult – they have to make a profit to survive and this sets doctors against each other.

Now all surgeons, we all know that the more we do of a particular sort of surgery the better we get. If that workload is divided up and split between many different departments and different surgeons, no one person is really going to become very good at dealing with it.

If you look at what’s happening in Europe and America, super specialisation is the game. I trained along with Professor Devkota in what’s called general neurosurgeon – I could do everything. But in recent years, we all stopped doing that, we became more and more specialised. I ended up specialising mainly in brain tumour surgery and even then, in particular sorts of brain tumours, which means I became very, very expert in that particular sort of case. That is not happening in Nepal.

Do you have any solutions?

I’m not here to tell people what to do because I don’t know. What I do know is that all healthcare systems reflect the underlying culture of the country. If there is a solution – it has to come from the people living in that country.

Could you touch on the over-commercialisation of healthcare in Nepal?

With all medicine, there’s a problem – is medicine a vocation or is it a business?Our judgement is easily distorted, unconsciously, and if you know you’re going to make a lot of money by treating the patient, or if you know your hospital needs to make money to survive, that’s probably on an unconscious level going to distort your judgement of whether to operate or not. Ultimately, with commercial healthcare, the patient becomes the means to the end of making money. With the other extreme, if doctors are only paid fixed salaries in a state system, in theory at least, the end of everything you’re doing is for the wellbeing of the patients and making money is not relevant.

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Henry Marsh training Nepali surgeons at the Neuro Hospital in Bansbari, Kathmandu in 2017. Photo: ESCAPMEDIA

What has your experience been like working with the hospital here?

I think it’s a wonderful hospital. I love coming here. It’s not always easy for me, for various reasons, but I have absolutely no hesitation in wanting to help as much as I can. Clearly the transitional period following Professor Devkota’s death was very difficult. He was very famous, and it was like a magnetic attraction: patients came from all over Nepal to see him, often without neurosurgical problems. Inevitably now, with the change of staff, it’s been a difficult transitional period. What strikes me is the way the hospital’s survived. One might have thought it would completely collapse once he had gone but that’s not the case at all. 

How do we implement affordable and accessible healthcare in rural areas in Nepal?

I’m not a public health expert. A major problem in Nepal, apart from the poverty, is poor infrastructure. In Europe, you can get patients fairly quickly from rural areas to central hospitals. That is often impossible in Nepal. You have to compromise, and you have to have more peripheral small hospitals out in the rural communities than you would in wealthier countries with more favourable terrain.

Nepal has many problems. If you wanted to design a country to have difficult problems, Nepal is that. We all know being landlocked is a major problem for economic development. Having all these mountains and adverse geographical features makes life difficult as well.

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What are some of the values you want to pass on to the younger generation of surgeons?

Firstly, to ask for help and not try to think you know everything because we don’t know everything. As young doctors, we’re often very anxious and frightened and we have to pretend to patients that we’re better than we are. We often end up pretending to ourselves as a way of boosting our self-confidence. It can be easier. I speak from personal experience; I can think of many patients who came to harm because I made this mistake. I didn’t ask for help from someone more experienced than myself.

My message to young doctors is it is OK to feel frightened. That’s the nature of the work. You can’t be a good doctor, particularly when you’re young and fairly inexperienced, without being anxious and frightened. Don’t feel ashamed to say "I don’t know", not to the poor old patient, but don’t feel ashamed to say to a senior colleague “I need your help”.

The other advice I give to young doctors, apart from ask for help, is listen to patients. So many doctors, including myself when I was younger, just sort of talk at patients rather than talk with them. Purely in terms of making a diagnosis and making the right decisions, listening to the patient’s story is very important. I’ve worked all over the world and medical systems vary all over the world. Doctors vary all over the world. As far as I can tell though, we’re all the same as patients: we’re frightened, we’re anxious, we want to be treated with respect. We want to be treated with respect and doctors are often bad at doing that – particularly in rather hierarchal societies like Nepal.