The TV channel that lobotomises half the population with its Big Brother show also managed to redeem itself this week by broadcasting a series of live surgery events from the Wellcome Collection in central London.

Last night I was there in the auditorium itself to watch a live example of brain surgery carried out. I watched the heart surgery on Monday on the television, and had been to see it carried out live for myself last year, when it wasn’t broadcast on TV.

One thing which is probably obvious, but not made clear is that the TV show only takes in the second half of the evening – as the auditorium had already been watching at least an hour’s worth of surgery before the TV show starts.

Last night’s was more surreal than watching the heart surgery as the patent was also awake throughout the procedure and even chatted to us on occasions while the surgeon was poking away in his brain at the same time.

I am a bit squeamish, and when they prepped the patient by injecting loads of local anaesthetic into his head, I really had to look away at that point. Oddly though, once that is done and the head is covered up in wrappings and sheets, there is some sort of disconnect from the person being worked on and it becomes considerably easier to watch – and I was enthralled.

The point they were working on was near the ear by the jaw muscle, so that all had to be cut away to reveal the bone of the skull – and then once that was all cleaned and revealed, we saw the surgeon bring out a drill. At this point I braced myself to feel ill – but the studio very wisely turned the volume down somewhat so the “dentist drill” sound wasn’t so bad.

One subtle point was that during this part of the surgery, a nurse (?) who kept talking to the patient throughout the event held his hands for a while. Having had a biopsy myself, I really cannot explain how incredibly reassuring it is to hold onto a real human at that point in what is an incredibly painful operation. I just can’t explain it – but it is so important, and it was interesting to see the nurse do that here as well.

Two holes drilled and then out came an electric saw to cut out the skull – not quite a Black & Decker, but not far off.

There was a momentary struggle to life the slab of bone, caused by an earlier operation and as the surgeon almost had to lever the bone plate out, there was an audible “urgh” from the auditorium. Around nowish the TV show itself started as the surgeon started to clear the area to show the layer that covers the brain itself.

As they got ready to cut open the layer, Krishnan Guru-Murthy asked how long it would be, and the surgeon said a couple of minutes so they went to an ad-break. Unfortunately for the home audience, they almost immediately started cutting the thin covering away to reveal the brain beneath. It is a huge pity the home audience missed that, as although it was nothing more than cutting away a thin bit of material – the act of revealing the brain, almost like a grand flourish was actually quite exciting to see.

One thing which I never thought about and was interested to see is that the brain throbs. I know I have occasionally throbbing headaches, but it never really occurred to be that the brain actually has a “beat” of its own. Pretty obvious when you think about the blood pumping around the brain, but seeing it in the cavity throbbing away rather than sitting there as an inert lump of material seemed to make it more alive and sentient – almost as if it was a separate entity within the human body.

After running tests to make sure none on the brain being worked on would cause problems with speech – the rest of the surgery was a bit confused as it was basically a 15 minute process of cutting away at the brain material. The heart operation was easier to understand, while the brain operation seemed to be just lots of fiddling for ages with pipes and sticks.

However, there was a sudden moment, almost missed as it was so swift when a huge lump of brain was taken out whole from the area – and again the auditorium had an “urgh” moment.

Suddenly – what was going on became much easier to understand, and the scale of the operation became more obvious as a microscope was moved over what was now looking like a deep chasm in the brain. Indeed so deep was the tunnel into the head that you could see the base of the skull at the bottom of the hole. And yet, the patient was still chatting away on the table. Amazing!

We had to finish the TV broadcast around that point, although the show carried on in the auditorium for another half hour until the satellite feed from Southampton was lost.

Unlike the heart operation last year, we didn’t get to see the end of the operation, which was a bit of a pity as it would be interesting to see how they patch up such a hugely invasive bit of work – but to see what we saw was a privilege in itself.

Throughout the evening, there were questions from Twitter and the auditorium, and a pre-broadcast request to keep the questions simple and for medical students to avoid “showing off” was ignored by one person who asked a baffling question about something or other. Having actually forgotten they would stick a camera in your face, I asked a question about the recovery rate (amazingly fast) – although it quite distracting to listen to a surgeon talking when someone is pointing a big box of electronics at you. I guess TV presenters just get used to it.

Also pre-broadcast, the team in the operating theatre seemed a very jovial and jokey group as they started the operation, but once they got stuck into the more serious side of the work, the theatre became significantly more sombre.

Very brave of the patient to not only agree to appear on TV in surgery but unlike the others, to be awake throughout the event.

This is now the second live surgery event I have been to at the Wellcome Collection, and I really cannot recommend them enough – even for squeamish people (like me!). I presume and hope that they’ll run more in the future and naturally as soon as I get details via their mailing list I plug the details on here, as I did recently.

There will be two more Live Surgery events on Channel 4, on tonight is keyhole surgery and tomorrow night is the removal of a Pituitary Tumour – which is another one going back inside the skull, although this time via the nose. I presume the patient can’t sneeze when that is happening?


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