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'The Surgeon's Cut': How the world’s greatest doctors stay human

Indian cardiac surgeon Dr. Devi Shetty features in this limited series on global pioneers of modern surgery, produced by BBC Studios for Netflix

Dr Devi Shetty in a scene from 'The Surgeon's Cut'.
Dr Devi Shetty in a scene from 'The Surgeon's Cut'.

If you go to The Surgeon’s Cut as a fan of Grey’s Anatomy, hoping for the heady excitement and nerve-wracking suspense that characterise the US medical drama, chances are you may be a tad disappointed. However, once you reckon with the fact that the four episodes in this limited series, produced for Netflix by BBC Studios, are all based on actual people and their real battle with disease, you may sober up considerably, and marvel at the stories that unfold. For what you see in this crisply produced series is not just the triumph of science and technology but also suffering and heartbreak—without the consoling filter of fiction—and how medical professionals struggle, as much as their patients, to alleviate pain, while promising no false hopes.

You may think all this to be a well-worn terrain, until you get to the doctors featured in each of the roughly hour-long episodes. Dr. Kypros Nicolades of King’s College Hospital, London, in Episode 1, is on the cutting edge of foetal medicine, most famously responsible for perfecting a technique to treat twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome. Episode 2 looks at the life and work of Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, a Mexican national who illegally migrated to the US and worked at a farm picking tomatoes before he joined Harvard Medical School and became one of the leading brain surgeons in the world. This is followed by the career of Dr. Nancy Asher, the first woman to carry out a liver transplant. The series is bookended by Dr. Devi Shetty, the great Indian cardiac surgeon whose mission is to make life-saving surgeries accessible to a wide public.

Each of these names is a pioneer in their respective fields, not only for the sheer daring of their innovations but also as crusaders who have surmounted years of opposition from the medical establishment for the sake of their causes. Dr Nicolades, for instance, battled stiff resistance from his colleagues against conducting invasive procedures on pregnant women. Yet, even after nearly three decades of experience in fetal medicine, his enthusiasm for the field remains undiminished. The emotions that cross his face as he observes a foetus inside the womb through an ultrasound machine are many—but all of it is grounded in his sense of empathy with his patients.

In each of the doctors, including the somewhat blunt Dr. Asher, empathy is as key an asset as technical expertise. Be it Dr. Quinones-Hinojosa operating on brain tumours of patients while they are awake, Dr Shetty fixing multiple holes in the heart of a tiny infant, Dr. Asher transplanting a part of a healthy liver of a young woman into her ailing mother’s, or Dr. Nicolades putting a small balloon into the trachea of a 27-week-old foetus inside the womb—the dexterity we see is breathtaking. But if science has allowed humans to play gods, the best of our kind has also exercised that privilege with extreme caution and humility.

While none of the episodes, barring the first, makes us confront scenarios of failure, the doctors admit to, and reiterate, their fallibility time and again. The difference between life and death, in their cases, involves cutting a micro-inch too close to healthy brain tissues or damaging an aorta while repairing a failing heart. Each of them has to live with a degree of responsibility that few other humans have to bear the burden of. Yet, their resolve remains undaunted even when the going gets tough in their professional and personal lives—in the case of Dr Nicolades, in spite of the prognosis of his own blood cancer.

If The Surgeon’s Cut celebrates the unbelievable leaps science and technology have made to prolong human life and alleviate suffering, it also reveals an aspect of the medical profession that non-physicians rarely get to see. The doctors who treat us, in whom we invest our faith as though they are gods, are also human at the end of the day, each with their unique personal histories and belief systems. The story of Dr Quinones-Hinojosa, for instance, deserves an entire film by itself. Dr Shetty, on the other hand, in spite of being one of the world’s greatest cardiac surgeons and philanthropists, still does his daily puja before he heads off to work. The death of a patient still sets him back in a way that a seasoned doctor like him is unlikely to admit on record.

It is a gift of The Surgeon's Cut that we get to see not only the workings of the medical profession but also a coexistence of science and spirituality, humility and confidence, qualities that our brazenly arrogant world sorely lacks.

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