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A day in the life of a brain surgeon

PUBLISHED: 09:00 27 September 2014

Elaine De'Ath, hours out of surgery, with consultant neurosurgeon Jonathan Pollock

Elaine De'Ath, hours out of surgery, with consultant neurosurgeon Jonathan Pollock

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Few could say an average day includes prodding sharp objects into people's brains.

Jonathan Pollock discusses a patient's notes with Sahara B ward sister Maria CurtinJonathan Pollock discusses a patient's notes with Sahara B ward sister Maria Curtin

But Queen’s Hospital neurosurgeon Jonathan Pollock is one.

In fact he’s one of only a small number in the region. If you suffer head trauma in a car crash in Harwich – out on farthest reaches of coastal Essex – it’s likely you’ll end up at Queen’s, in the care of some of the country’s most qualified clinicians at the Essex Neurosciences Centre.

As clinical director for neurosciences, the 48-year-old splits his time between clinical and managerial work.

The latter is more administrative – on the day I meet him, he’s already helped colleagues interview for a new human resources director for Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust (BHRUT), which runs Romford’s Queen’s as well as King George in Goodmayes.

But his surgical work is far more interesting.

Sahara B ward, so-called thanks to a competition to come up with a name to go with the orange colour scheme, is where he spends much of his time, tending to patients pre and post op in mostly stable conditions.

Elaine De’Ath is one. Just hours out of surgery on her skull, Jonathan is hopeful she’ll be going home tomorrow.

“Our average patient’s stay is often shorter than you’d expect,” he says.

The Neuro Intensive Care Unit (NITU) is somewhere else you’ll find him.

This is a place where the fragility of life hangs heavy in the air – more so than the rest of the hospital.

NITU, home to 12 beds and with an estimated “throughput” last year of 200, is for patients who need help to breathe.

Serious neurosurgical conditions such as trauma and brain haemorrhages are common on this ward, where their severity warrants a ratio of one nurse per patient.

For a squeamish journalist whose experience of hospitals extends little further than a visit for stitches, the ward is a daunting place.

And so is the quiet and sterile environment of theatre, where just an hour after sustaining head trauma in an accident in Chelmsford, you could be operated on by Jonathan.

That surgery is likely to involve a special piece of equipment which uses an image guidance system. Using MRI signal, it allows surgeons to identify what’s causing a problem – be that a tumour or a haemorrhage – to save “going in with a ruler”, as it used to be done.

Queen’s has two of the most expensive machines, one which was funded by the King George and Queen’s Hospitals Charity.

Demonstrating its use, it’s clear Jonathan still find his job deeply rewarding, an enthusiasm that re-emerges later when he recalls what got him into neurosurgery more than two decades ago.

“I can remember the first group I saw doing it – I thought that looks unusual and like a bit of a challenge. It’s also rapidly changing.”

His job may seem completely alien to most, but Jonathan insists it’s similar to many others.

“The more of it you do the more used to it you get, which is the case with all jobs. As you get more experienced, things start to become more routine.

“The great thing about having done it for 15-20 years is that you’ve done some of it before. So you’re a bit more relaxed and you find things easier.”

There is one feature he’s prepared to accept makes his job stand out, though.

“This is one of the few professions where you can see into the future.

“It’s a bit of a cliché but it’s true we have a little bit of clairvoyance. Patients come in with a certain condition, and we can do quite a good job of predicting what’s going to happen.”

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