Man at His Best

What I've Learned: Dr Syed

On life, family and brain surgery.

BY Sim Wie Boon | Sep 3, 2016 | Fitness & Health

Marcus Wong

Dr Syed, Neurosurgeon, 47

I was brought up in a military environment. I attended the Royal Military College in Sungai Besi. I was fortunate enough to be offered a scholarship to do my A-Levels in the UK following my SPM. After that, I chose the career of a doctor.

I’m not one of those people who aspired to become a neurosurgeon. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. It was the people whom I met that inspired me to become one.

I enjoy anatomy. To see the beauty from within the human body as well as the intricacies and the connectivity of the brain is spectacular, especially when it’s the brain that defines what we are all about.

I did my first surgery with trepidation. My legs were shaking. It was my first craniotomy on my own. Not only was the case difficult, time was of the essence as well. If I had delayed the operation, it may have compromised the patient’s recovery or even cost the patient his or her life. It was a huge responsibility. I’m pleased to say that the patient recovered well.

From there, you slowly build your confidence. It’s just like driving a car for the first time. You always have that trepidation. It comes with experience; it will enable you to tackle the next problem that you encounter.

As a Malaysian doctor in the UK, there weren’t many doubts about my capabilities. I think that doubt came from within. Having sat on the opposite end of an interview panel, I can see that some people, especially those from other parts of the world, come to the UK with a victim mentality. They always feel that they are second-class citizens. That’s one big lesson that I’ve learned. If you think, “Oh, I’m a foreigner, I’m not going to do well”, you’re not going to do well. If you believe that you’re as good as anyone else or even better, you could excel in whatever you do.

After 28 years, I decided to return to Malaysia mainly because of family. I’ve been away for so long that the person who looked after me when I was young is getting old. I don’t want to have any regrets later on in life where I wish that I could have done this or that. I know that’s recurrent in people who live abroad. When their parents leave this world, they say, “Oh, I’m sorry; I missed the boat.” I don’t want that to happen to me.

Every case that I’ve encountered gives me a new opportunity to learn and improve myself. I’ve encountered so many difficult cases, but which one stands out? I don’t think I can name one; each and every one is special to me.

It’s not just the case, but also the person whom I am operating on. I remember the case of a young executive whom I had to perform a 13-hour brain surgery on. It just so happened that her daughter was due to get her exam results two days later. It was a rather difficult moment, because I wasn’t just treating her, but her family as well.

We only use 14 to 15 percent of our brain capacity as we conduct our daily lives. That’s exciting because of the unknown parts. The more we look into it, the more we begin to unravel it. There are still a lot of things about our brain that we don’t know. For example, why are we happy? How do we feel sad? There are hypotheses around it, but we’re still not sure why.

What I’ve encountered with patients in Malaysia is they trust WhatsApp messages forwarded by relatives or Google searches more than their own doctors. Even Pak Bomoh is more important than doctors, and in a way, it’s a sad reflection because people want the less harmful, shortcut treatments.

It’s sad to see patients who have been given proper medical advice seeking alternatives to modern medicine. I’m not discounting traditional medicine, but I’m saying that it could be complementary to modern medicine. Unfortunately, Malaysians have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.

My way of delivering bad news is that I’m always honest about it. I don’t beat around the bush. I just say it. It may not be to some people’s taste, but so far, I’ve not had any complaints. My patients appreciate the honesty.

The human brain weighs about 1.5kg. It feels like soft cheese. and the best part of it is that this soft cheese defines who you are. There are millions upon millions of connections that make it what it is. It’s unbelievable.

The Awake Brain Surgery method isn’t something new. In some cases, the location of the tumour is in the most sensitive part of the brain that affects your limbs, speech, vision and understanding. If you’re not careful, you can do more harm than help. When we do the standard surgery [where the patient is asleep], even in the most excellent and controlled environment, he or she might wake up with deficits. With Awake Brain Surgery, we can monitor the condition of the patient, as he or she is awake. The patient is put under anaesthesia during the first part of the surgery, and then woken up.

I do believe in a higher power. You can’t say a natural process that created human beings just happened. That’s how I can be appreciative of the beauty of it. There’s something greater behind all of this. That’s how I keep my feet on the ground as well. Your ability to do what you’re good at can be taken away at any moment, and how would you deal with it?


First published in Esquire Malaysia, July 2016.