Celebrated neurosurgeon Professor Charlie Teo, is ramping up the fight to find a cure for brain cancer.
6 September, 2018
Internationally-renowned neurosurgeon, teacher, mentor and tireless campaigner in the fight against brain cancer – Professor Charlie Teo is not a man who wastes time or entertains the idea of impossible. His seemingly boundless energy is born of a passion and drive to help those suffering from brain cancer and ultimately to find a cure for this insidious disease.
His work has saved countless lives and prolonged and enriched the lives of many others both in Australia and around the world, while his pioneering work in developing minimally invasive techniques for neurosurgery were recognised with a Member of the Order of Australia in 2011.
But Professor Charlie Teo doesn’t fit the idea most people would have of a top surgeon. There is no sign of an aloof, clinical detachment, but rather a genuine warmth and good humour that is infectious.
The professor also famously rides a motorbike – not the standard transport of a leading surgeon – and while many of his fellow medical undergrads tutored HSC students to help pay their way through university, Teo, a karate blackbelt, worked as a bouncer.
Indeed, when it came to completing his final exams, his unorthodox approach to life became a sticking point for the young medical student.
“I failed my final exams three times and my mentor took me aside after the final…I was very despondent and I said ‘what have I done wrong?’”
“He said: ‘Charlie it’s very simple. Let’s go through the exam. So we started going through it and I said ‘what about the surgical anatomy?’ and he said, ‘oh no, you passed that.’
“And I said ‘well I thought I did pretty well in the pathology as well? And he said, ‘oh yes you passed that’.
‘Well what about the clinical long case and short case?’
“And he said, ‘oh you did very well in those too’.
His work has saved countless lives and prolonged and enriched the lives of many others both in Australia and around the world
Teo’s very egalitarian approach to life in general – something he got from his mother – is sometimes at odds with ‘the establishment’
“So at the end I said ‘Mike it sounds like I passed everything’ and he said, ‘Charlie, I need to talk to you about a few things. The College (College of Surgeons) are very concerned about your attitude and we’ve come up with a few things that we just don’t find acceptable. A surgeon can’t ride a motorbike, you’ve got to stop riding a motorbike, it just doesn’t fit, it’s just not right. And the other thing is this lifestyle of yours, you’re always going clubbing. And he said you’ve got to maintain a certain distance from your patients, and if you don’t, the emotional toll on you when outcomes aren’t good is going to be such that your professional life will be cut short’.”
“So he was doing it in my best interests and he did it in all sincerity, not to be snobbish…he truly believed that a surgeon throughout his career needed to remain aloof. He said that it was necessary to remain emotionally detached and that what would keep you stable in order to do your practice,” recounts Professor Teo.
“And he’s absolutely right. But what he didn’t say and what he didn’t recognise was that if you develop friendship and warmth with your patients and there’s a good outcome, the emotional energy you get from that completely counterbalances any emotional energy you expend on the ones that do poorly.”
Teo’s very egalitarian approach to life in general – something he got from his mother – is sometimes at odds with ‘the establishment’, but it is one that gets results, with many patients diagnosed as inoperable, now owing their lives to Teo, his extraordinary talents and his willingness to take on cases that others have deemed beyond help.
While his patients and their families and indeed the public love him, his successes where others have proclaimed tumours to be inoperable have more than ruffled others’ professional feathers. But results speak for themselves and Teo is not interested in criticisms and makes no apologies for his approach.
“All I care about is my patients,” he says. “Developing a relationship with your patients where you get to know them and they know that you care for them and are doing everything in your power to help them, definitely improves outcomes.”
Teo says his very successful outcomes are multi-factorial. A combination of his attitude and approach, coupled with his training both here and overseas, wonderful mentors and the fact that he has only ever concentrated on brain tumours.
And it seems that his approach is what’s needed against a cancer that attacks the body’s nerve centre, as the statistics concerning brain cancer are confronting to say the least. Brain cancer kills more children in Australia than any other disease, and kills more people under the age of 40 than any other cancer. Just as concerning, the relative five-year survival rate for this voracious cancer has remained practically unchanged in the past 30 years, while survival rates for other types of cancers have improved significantly.
In addition to his surgical work, Professor Teo is a tireless campaigner to raise much needed funds for cancer research. Earlier this year, Professor Teo stepped aside from the Cure Brain Cancer Foundation to found a new charity to raise much needed funds for brain cancer research, but without what he sees as waste.
The Charlie Teo Foundation (CTF), which has partnered with the Audi Foundation, uses a different model to the traditional not-for-profits with a goal of seeing more funds get to the research and not become tied up in administration and running costs.
“The partnership between The Charlie Teo Foundation and The Audi Foundation makes sense because our values are perfectly aligned. We are both progressive in thinking, global in presence and strive for excellence whilst remaining accessible to all people from all walks of life."
The Charlie Teo Foundation operates on a largely volunteer basis, and seeks to do away with the large and costly administration and running costs of other charities which can see more than 60 percent of funds raised, spent on day to day operating costs.
In addition to his surgical work, Professor Teo is a tireless campaigner to raise much needed funds for cancer research
"But occasionally there’s going to be a scientist who’s not only brilliant, but able to think outside the box"
This, says Teo is unacceptable, and while he applauds the efforts of those working to raise funds elsewhere, he feels sure that donors would share his view of wanting their donations to get to where they’ll do the most good.
“I felt that there had to be a better way and I identified volunteerism as that better way,” he says. “It’s working at the moment, but I’ll be the first to admit if it doesn’t work, but at the moment it’s working well.”
“We have only three employees and we’re running very lean,” says Teo. “We’re also going to disrupt the funding model as well.”
“Often scientists receive research funding not just because of their brilliance, but because they’re able to successfully run a lab as a business, present well, deliver reports and have good people skills,” says Teo.
"But occasionally there’s going to be a scientist who’s not only brilliant, but able to think outside the box and be a disruptive scientist, but perhaps has none of the interpersonal skills,” he says.
Often these scientists miss out on funding because they may not present well or possess the interpersonal skills and it could well be, says the Professor, that one of these different approaches could be the one to crack the code.
“I want CTF to identify those people and fund the people who may be so disruptive and so out there that they might find the cure to cancer, but they might not necessarily get the funding from the established funding agencies.”
It’s this finding an ultimate cure that drives Teo, and while he’s realistic and knows that there’s a long way to go, Professor Charlie Teo is, characteristically optimistic.
“I’m very encouraged by the direction we’re heading in and the momentum we’re developing,” he says.
Certainly, there is no one more passionate or driven in the search for a cure and no one who has demonstrated a single-minded determination to change the lives of those afflicted and not only offer hope, but deliver the goods.
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