The juxtaposition between my first 2 days of neurosurgery could not have been more profound. On my first day as a third-year medical student, the attending and chief resident let me take the lead on the first case: a straightforward brain biopsy. I got to make the incision, drill the burr hole, and perform the needle biopsy. I still remember the thrill of the technical challenge, the controlled violence of drilling into the skull, and the finesse of accessing the tumor core.
The buzz was so strong that I barely registered the diagnosis that was called back from the pathologist: glioblastoma. It was not until I saw the face of the disease the next morning that I understood the reality of a GBM diagnosis. That face belonged to a 47-year-old man who hadn’t slept all night, wide eyed with apprehension at what news I might bring. He beseeched me with questions, and though his aphasia left him stammering to get the words out, I knew exactly what he was asking: Would he live or die? It was a question I was in no position to answer. Instead, I reassured him that we were waiting on the final pathology, all the while trying to forget the fact that the frozen section suggested an aggressive subtype, surely heralding a poor prognosis.
In his poignant memoir, “Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery” (New York: Thomas Dunne Book, 2015), Dr. Henry Marsh writes beautifully about how difficult it can be to find the balance between optimism and realism. In one memorable passage, Dr. Marsh shows a house officer a scan of a highly malignant brain tumor and asks him what he would say to the patient. The trainee reflexively hides behind jargon, skirting around what he knew to be the truth: This tumor would kill her. Marsh presses him to admit that he’s lying, before lamenting at how hard it is to improve these critical communication skills: “When I have had to break bad news I never know whether I have done it well or not. The patients aren’t going to ring me up afterward and say, ‘Mr. Marsh, I really liked the way you told me that I was going to die,’ or ‘Mr. Marsh, you were crap.’ You can only hope that you haven’t made too much of a mess of it.”
I could certainly relate to Dr. Marsh’s house officer as I walked away from my own patient. I felt almost deceitful withholding diagnostic information from him, even if I did the “right” thing. It made me wonder, why did I want to become a neurosurgeon? Surely to help people through some of the most difficult moments of their lives. But is it possible to be a source of comfort when you are required so often to be a harbinger of death? The answer depends on whether one can envision a role for the neurosurgeon beyond the mandate of “life at all costs.”
While the field has become known for its life-saving procedures, neurosurgeons are called just as often to preside over the end of their patient’s lives – work that requires just as much skill as any technical procedure. Dr. Marsh recognized the tremendous human cost of neglecting that work. For cases that appear “hopeless,” he writes, “We often end up operating because it’s easier than being honest, and it means that we can avoid a painful conversation.”
We are only beginning to understand the many issues that neurosurgical patients face at the end of life, but so far it is clear that neurosurgical trainees require substantive training in prognostication, communication, and palliation (Crit Care Med. 2015 Sep;43:1964-77 1,2; J Neurooncol. 2009 Jan;91:39-43). Is there room in the current training paradigm for more formal education in these domains? As we move further into the 21st century, we must embrace the need for masterful clinicians outside of the operating room if we are to ever challenge the axiom set forth by the renowned French surgeon, René Leriche, some 65 years ago: “Every surgeon carries within himself a small cemetery, where from time to time he goes to pray – a place of bitterness and regret, where he must look for an explanation for his failures.” Let us look forward to the day when this is no longer the case.
Stephen Miranda is a medical student from the University of Rochester, who is now working as a research fellow at Ariadne Labs, a joint center for health systems innovation at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, both in Boston.