Monday, July 9, 2012

Local Anaesthetics: The English Surgeon and The Flying Scotsman

by Drew Martin
I watched an interesting film yesterday called The English Surgeon. The first impression was "Oh, this is a real documentary about real issues. It is not trying to entertain, distract or fool me." The English Surgeon is about a leading British neurosurgeon, Dr. Henry Marsh, who leaves the comfort of his hospital and home to help Igor Petrovich perform brain surgeries against all odds in Ukraine. The premise is moving but sometimes the film reads like a Monty Python skit or a mockumentary such as Spinal Tap or Borat. Ukrainians must hate this film. All the landscapes are muddy. All the architecture is bleak. All the people seem to be peasants with brain tumors who cannot even form a proper queue. Bespectacled Marsh is a quixotic character, who shouts 'bloody hell' at his computer, salvages medical equipment from his London hospital and builds his own shipping crates in his garden. Adding to the potential farce is a young patient who is epileptic due to a large brain tumor. He is a bit of a town fool, who all-to-willingly goes under the knife. The Ukraine hospital is ill-equipped and does not have all the anaesthetics Marsh would typically use so he recommends to the young man to have the whole procedure under a local anaesthetic since the brain has no feeling. This means that while the young man is having his skull cut open and the tumor sucked out, he is also alert and babbles. After listening to the drilling and sawing of his cranium, he remarks that he understands why boxers can fight so long.

I also recently saw a film called The Flying Scotsman about Graeme Obree, a young bipolar and suicidal Scottish cyclist. Obree builds his own bike, using parts from his wife's washing machine, in order to break the world hour record, which is one of the most grueling sporting events. Obree's life is a great story but this was not a particularly good film. I am, however, drawn to tales of resourceful people who can tinker with and transform things into elevated objects. This ingenuity is taken to another level in The English Surgeon. The Marsh-Petrovich duo shop around second world markets to look at power drills for operations. They sit in a small apartment kitchen, modifying discarded penetrators (drill bits for bone). Petrovich saws off the sheathing of a penetrator on the edge of his kitchen table with a hack saw just before eating dinner. One wonders if this team could even jump start a car together but soon enough we see them in scrubs performing a successful operation on the young man, who is thereafter cured of his epilepsy.

Marsh was discouraged by others to help and Petrovich even received death threats for trying to buck the system. Petrovich questions what to do with one's life that will be most beneficial to others. While he and Marsh challenge the left-over Soviet system, they also know there are limits. In many instances we see them simply turn away patients, telling them it is too late to do anything and that they have inoperable tumors. In these moments we see the souls of a good people. The patients do not counter with anger and threats of lawsuits. Instead, they apologize for wasting the doctors' time and thank them. In one instance they tell a beautiful 20-something woman to return with her mother who is in Moscow. The young lady thinks she has something like Lyme disease, but Marsh explains to Petrovich that she has an inoperable tumor, will likely go blind in the next year and probably will not live for another five years. Petrovich says he does not know how to tell her this because she is so carefree and giggly, Marsh offers that he always has someone else with the patient when breaking such news. Marsh says they are constantly playing Russian roulette with two loaded guns to the patient's head. One gun is their illness, the other, the possibility that something will go horribly wrong. Contrasting the success of the epileptic's operation is a botch job with a young girl. Marsh operated on her in London but it was failure. He further damaged her brain and she lived out her remaining two years in misery. Marsh keeps in touch with the family. The film even takes us into the home of the mother where he is greeted lovingly by her relatives and then he visits her grave, marked with an enormous headstone with a bust of the young girl.