Plain-speaking doctor who has taken the literary world by storm
11 May, 2017 — By John Gulliver
Henry Marsh: ‘Mistakes often come from the foolish pursuit of perfection’
FACED with “disciplinary” action by the hospital medical director because he and fellow doctors had worn the wrong dress code – suits and ties – on their rounds Henry Marsh, one of our leading brain surgeons, wrote out his resignation from the National Health Service the next day.
He is 67 but still works in the Ukraine and Nepal. Retire? Retire to what?– is how he put it to an audience of more than 150 who had gathered at Daunt Books in Marylebone on Tuesday evening to listen to the latest rock star of the book world. He was discussing his latest book, Admissions – a sequel to his first best-seller Do No Harm – with Robert McCrum, associate editor of the Observer.
But don’t get Henry Marsh wrong. He fully supports the NHS, he emphasised as his right arm swept the air. It’s perhaps the greatest health service in the world, he said, but it needs more funding.
He mocked the Daily Express because it had described expenditure on the NHS as a “bottomless pit”. Of course, he said, it is a “bottomless” pit because however much you put into it, the “population will still die”. Death comes to all. But the point is that it needs a “floor” and the money put into it, as present, does not come anywhere near that “floor”.
Mr Marsh ran over his early life: set out to study philosophy at Oxford, gave up, worked at odd jobs including hospital portering, and then finished his degree, before taking up medicine. Somewhere along the way as a young man he fell in love with an older woman. It didn’t last, and he shook his head sadly as he suddenly threw this drama at the audience, as if to say: See what happens in life!
As he faces the audience he is completely at ease, expressing, you sense, his inner self. He throws any form of self-censorship to the winds. The word “corrupted” keeps on popping up. We all know how some doctors like playing God, he is clearly very conscious of it – and afraid of how a doctor who has a patient’s life in his hands can be so easily corrupted. He wouldn’t deny that feeling and talks about his mistakes as well as his successes. A wide smile creases his face as he mentions a young child whose life he saved recently. Mistakes? Often they come from wrong judgments, often from the foolish pursuit of perfection.
He lays it all before the audience, that is why they love him – they feel they are in the company of a man who says it as it is.
He tells the story of a “houseman” under him who, years later, he hears has become arrogant and dismissive, as if that is how corrosive medicine can become.
He ends by describing how in the US, where he lectures, patients, who would be treated quite sensibly over here with few if any tests, are given lots of unnecessary tests because that is how the “bill” is made up. But he is not critical of US hospitals which ratchet up bills, that is just one side of the service there.
Mr Marsh is a forgiving man though he makes it clear he is not a man of faith – he suggests he gained more than he expected from studying philosophy.
Clearly he has a fan club like any star. As I left, a long queue formed for his autograph.
People couldn’t get enough of him.
• Admissions: A life in Brain Surgery, by Henry Marsh is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £16.