‘The English Surgeon,’ offers lesson on life and generosity

For the last 15 years, London brain surgeon Henry Marsh has been traveling to Ukraine offering his services pro bono. The story is told in Australian director Geoffrey Smith’s «The English Surgeon,» a moving yet difficult-to-watch documentary on the greatness and tragedy of human destiny. The film will be screened at the Kos International Health Film Festival, organized by Lucia Rikaki and running September 1 to September 6. Accompanied by the imposing music composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis especially for the occasion, the documentary begins with three parallel stories: that of Dr Marsh in London, of his counterpart Dr Igor Kurilets and that of Marian in Ukraine. The latter is tending to his cat Masha before departing for a crucial procedure. Marsh’s arrival in Ukraine brings the three stories together: Assisted by Igor, Marsh will operate on Marian’s brain tumor. The lengthy operation – during which the patient remains conscious – is depicted in 15 sensational minutes via three cameras and Marian cracking jokes with an open skull. Outside the operating room, patients gather in dark corridors waiting for Marsh to take a look at them. In one of the most heartbreaking moments, the two doctors can’t bring themselves to give (beautiful) Uliana some extremely bad news. Overall, however, the film is haunted by little Tania. «She had the biggest tumor I have ever seen,» says Marsh on camera. «I put her through a series of operations, one more catastrophic than the next.» Marsh’s own son, who was 18 months old at the time, developed a brain tumor 28 years ago. «While his son was on the operating table, he was pacing outside the hospital,» said Smith, the documentary’s director, to Kathimerini, during a recent visit to Athens. «That’s when he decided to get into brain surgery. He knows exactly how a parent feels when his child is going through such an ordeal. Thankfully, his son is fine.» This is not the case for little Tania, however. In the film’s finale, Dr Marsh visits her mother and the child’s grave. «He felt so emotionally charged that the camera enabled him to maintain his British stiff upper lip,» said Smith. Back when Dr Marsh began his visits to Ukraine, the country was facing serious problems in the healthcare sector. «The conditions in Ukraine hospitals after the fall of communism were shocking. Henry transported modern medical tools, bringing them into the country illegally, driving his own car from London to Ukraine. He had to bribe officials at the borders,» noted Smith. «In the mid-1990s, Ukraine authorities still operated with Soviet reflexes: Anything stemming from the West was deemed suspicious and dangerous.» As for Henry Marsh, besides his generosity and the fact that the Ukrainians see him as a savior, it is the way that he deals with his moral dilemmas that is compelling: «Being a brain surgeon has a peculiarity,» he says. «A wrong choice or diagnosis and I can alter you character, interfere with your memories, make you lose your personality. I can cut off your brain, as opposed to your leg or your arm.» «What are you,» asks Dr Marsh, «if you can’t help your fellow man? You are nothing, absolutely nothing,» he answers. Meanwhile, the film’s final credits inform us that Marian is doing absolutely fine and that he is at home helping Masha with her newborn kittens.

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