Surgeon (neurosurgeon)

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Kate, 49

A group of surgical instruments. Surgeon.What does a neurosurgeon (or brain & spinal surgeon) do?

A neurosurgeon looks after patients with all sorts of conditions of the brain and spine and nerves that require surgery.

Where do you work and who do you work for?

I work at Royal Melbourne Hospital, and at Melbourne Private Hospital, and at the University of Melbourne.

Why did you decide to work in neurosurgery?

I didn’t originally want to be a neurosurgeon. I originally thought that I would do medicine to go into obstetrics (delivering babies), but unfortunately when I started delivering babies I didn’t think it was very interesting! I quite liked the surgery associated with it, though, so I thought I might become a surgeon instead.

I think I always knew I would do something practical, so I considered all other types of surgery. I quite enjoyed general surgery and I did a little bit of orthopaedics, and a little bit of vascular surgery. When you’re training as a doctor you do various terms where you’re attached to different kinds of units. I thought most of the surgical specialties were pretty interesting, but I thought neurosurgery was the most interesting of all. 

How did you become a neurosurgeon?

When I finished school I went to the University of Sydney, where I did five years of medicine. I did that between 1983 and 1987. Then I was an intern, which is your first year of medical practice, in 1988 at Westmead Hospital.

Then you need to do - well, you don’t need to do it anymore, at least not in the same way - this horrible exam called the Part One exam, which meant that it was the first part of your training as a surgeon. You had to pass that exam to go any further, and that was an awful exam where if you got the question wrong they took away marks you got for answering other questions right! I had to do that exam four times before I finally passed!

While I was trying to pass that exam I was working as a general doctor doing various surgical specialties, and I did that for a while until I was accepted under neurosurgical training, which I started in 1993.

I did four years of neurosurgical training and qualified as a neurosurgeon in 1997, but not many people go straight into practice. I spent three years in research and a year at Harvard in the United States as part of a fellowship. So overall it took 15 years or more to get to be a neurosurgeon!

What does a typical working day involve?

I get up at 5am and I get to the hospital by about 6am. I do about an hour of paperwork, and then I start my rounds at 7am and go and see all my patients.

By about 8am I’ll either be in clinic seeing patients or I’ll be in the operating room, and in between that I’ll have some hospital meetings, or teaching, or perhaps I'll be doing some research. I work a six or a six-and-a-half day week. Most times I’ m here at the hospital from 6am until 7pm.

It’s a very time-intensive job, but then again I choose to do it. If I decided I didn’t want to do the work that I do for the university, for instance, or didn’t do so much teaching, or didn’t do research, then I could cut my hours back. I choose to do what I do.

We (neurosurgeons) are usually all overachievers! We’re usually all working way too hard.

What sort of skills do you need to do your job?

You need to be relatively smart, although I don’t think top marks are everything, but you need to be smart enough to understand complex situations and have a good memory for things. You need to be very resilient in terms of long operations and difficult situations with patients. You need to always be striving for excellence, because you only want the best for your patients.

You need to be compassionate because you meet people in some pretty bad situations, and I think you really need to have a love of it. You wouldn’t put all this time and effort in if you didn’t have a love and a passion for the work.

What advice do you have for people thinking about doing this job?

Going into any sort of medical field, there’s a really broad range of things that you can do. Look around. Get some experience. Try to do some work experience or get a placement with someone to see how the system works.

Make sure that all the subjects that you’re studying give you a background that would be useful for medicine. That’s really quite broad - it doesn’t have to be just biology, it can be all sorts of science and psychology and organisational study and that kind of stuff.

You should also make sure you don’t have any preconceptions, because there are lots of pathways to get into medicine these days. Even if you don’t have the marks to go straight into medical school, you can come into it through science or arts or whatever.

People often see neurosurgery as a pretty romantic profession. People think that being a neurosurgeon is a really fantastic thing. I would say it’s a good thing to aspire to, but a lot of the people I know who thought they wanted to be neurosurgeons, when they actually understood what a difficult and serious profession it is, changed their mind.

So I say go for it, but you need to go for it with an open mind, and know that it’s probably not for everyone who thinks that it is.

Find out more about this career path at myfuture.edu.au (new window) (Note: free registration is required to access the myfuture site).