What you need to know:
- The brain is the engine on the body
- It is a privilege to open up one, fiddle around in there and put it back together and the patient walks home thereafter
- Choosing this path therefore means no less than 15 years to learn how to perform miracles with your hands
It has been two weeks since we had our annual round of celebrations for our national examination stars.
Television channels featured these amazing performances from every corner of the country with communities celebrating these ambitious young winners who outshone their peers against all odds.
In 2021 we have heard deeply touching stories of children performing beyond expectations despite stiff challenges: physical disabilities, surviving cancer, poverty, all capped off with learning disruptions occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic.
These children have demonstrated resilience and this has earned them the privilege of choosing their future career paths.
Despite the array of careers available, they did not disappoint. Neurosurgery remained the top ambition for many. Ben Carson’s Gifted Hands still has a huge influence on the young minds. From our end of the spectrum, we welcome these determined, fresh-faced and optimistic youngsters into the profession.
It is in the spirit of welcoming that today I choose to give them a sneak peek of what awaits them on the long road to brain surgery. Medical school is nothing like they show in the movies. It is designed to test your limits in the first three years, to test if you do have the spine to proceed to the clinical rotations.
This is done through investment in countless hours of cramming disjointed Latin words to pass the anatomy examinations; peering down microscopes to memorise features of various cells so as to correctly identify them during the spot exam; reciting 49 life cycles of parasites that interact with man yet you will never encounter more than half of these in your lifetime of practice.
To be able to assess a sick child in the ward and correctly diagnose leukaemia fills one with pride. This is instantly deflated when you spend the whole afternoon with tweezers, picking safari ants from the nostrils of a newborn baby abandoned to die in the open grasslands by its mother. You are instantly sobered up by life.
Six years later, you toss your graduation cap in the air after publicly swearing to the Hippocratic oath at the graduation square, feeling on top of the world.
This feeling is unceremoniously wiped out on your first day of internship in a manner akin to the famous snakes and ladders game. The exhilarating feeling of making it to the final lap, only to throw the dice and your next count lands you on the mouth of the largest snake on the board, sucking you right back to square 24 from 97. The tears are real.
Internship is gruelling, preparing you for the future where your long work hours can amount to neglecting yourself while putting the patient first. You learn the art of decision-making amid unbelievable resource constraints.
The crazy schedule is peppered with the most insane incidents, depending on where one is posted. You learn rather quickly that the patient population is the sum total of their background, cultural beliefs, norms and values.
Take for instance, a friend who was called to the emergency department to review two young men who fought over khat. The community there values their khat plantations almost more than life, resulting in incomprehensible incidents.
The two had caused each other grievous harm yet they lay there carrying on without a care. One had been stabbed in the abdomen with intestines popping all out while the other’s arm was hung lifelessly, covered with machete cuts. This internship centre undoubtedly turns one into a surgeon without much effort.
I always thought pregnant women are sacred until we had to rush one to the operating room for an emergency caesarian section. She had been stabbed right on the abdomen by another woman.
The aggressor had just found out that the husband had cheated on her and she took out her anger on the poor woman and her unborn baby.
This left the victim fighting for her life with a baby forcibly delivered prematurely to allow the surgeon access to her injured intestines. She had no idea the father of her child was married.
These crazy incidents pepper the path towards brain surgery. It is a sum total of six long years of making you a general doctor, a dizzying year of internship, a few more years of being a jack of all trades in hospitals or clinics before commencing another six-year journey towards making you a neurosurgeon.
These experiences may feel far away from the very brain you are fixated on learning about but they cannot be done away with. They are part of the process.
The training in neurosurgery specialisation is not for the faint-hearted. You part ways with sleep, your fashion sense takes a hit as you perpetually live in surgical scrubs and clogs, you learn to function on oxygen without nutrients and lose track of days. Your teachers panel beat you into a high-performance machine without mercy.
The brain is the engine on the body. It is a privilege to open up one, fiddle around in there and put it back together and the patient walks home thereafter.
Choosing this path therefore means no less than 15 years to learn how to perform miracles with your hands while inculcating the humility to never forget that you are not God. Best wishes to all those embarking on this journey!