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Australian Story -

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Mind Of His Own - Transcript

PROGRAM TRANSCRIPT: Monday, 30 May , 2011

STEVE WAUGH, PRSENTER: Hi I'm Steve Waugh. Tonight's Australian Story is about Sydney neurosurgeon
Charlie Teo. We became close friends five years ago when he saved the life of my wife Lynette.
Charlie is an enigma in his own profession, loved by patients but sometimes unpopular with many in
the medical establishment. Tonight's program revisits the Teo legacy and brings his story up to

(Excerpt from Australian Story, 2003)

DR CHARLIE TEO: This is my philosophy on motorbikes. I know people think it's a bit odd that a
neurosurgeon, a brain surgeon should be riding a motorbike. We would often be called in as
registrars to see motorbike riders who had head injuries and it was very odd oftentimes when I
would turn up at the emergency room in my leathers with a helmet saying that I was a neurosurgeon.
And people would look at me and think, well hang on, you're not the neurosurgeon. I'm sure you're
just a friend of the patient who has had a motorbike accident. But I love my motorbike and if God
or our maker put us on earth to enjoy a certain number of thrills before we die, then I have
achieved all my thrills in a very short time and I can die a happy man any time. The words
neurosurgeon and controversial don't usually go together, except in my case (laughs). I don't try
and be controversial, I don't try and be on the wrong side, but I do have a terrible ability to rub
people up the wrong way. I do have a tendency to call a spade a F shovel. It's a failure of mine
that I will freely admit is a flaw in my personality. I find it very hard to toe the line when I
think that toeing the line is not right for your patient or not fair.

DR PETER NAKAJI, AMERICAN NEUROSURGEON: One thing I notice here is that people don't want to stand
out much as doctors. They don't want to generate a lot of controversy, and Charlie generates that
wherever he goes. I used to joke that if I ever needed to get through a minefield safely, I'd just
send him ahead of me because wherever he goes he attracts a certain amount of controversy.

DR STANLEY CHEN, GENERAL SURGEON: Funky, he's a funky sort of guy, he's different. He's a Chinese
neurosurgeon who's not being very Chinese in his behaviour. He's outgoing and extroverted and
outspoken, rides a motorcycle, wears Hawaiian shirts to work, laughs and cries with his patients,
befriends them, befriends their families, shows interest in them beyond just the neurosurgical

DARRYL STAPLES, PATIENT: Well I'm up here today to see Dr Charles Teo about a brain tumour that was
diagnosed four days ago. It's affected the left hand side of my body where I've lost coordination
down through the left leg in particular and a lot of weakness and loss of power in the left arm.
This doctor was recommended by a neurologist down on the coast. In the removal of brain tumours in
general, he is the recommended person that he would take himself to because I specifically asked
him that question - if it was you, doctor, and you needed to be looked after, who would you go to?
And he said Dr Charles Teo. I said that's good enough for me.

DR CHARLIE TEO: The great thing about neurosurgery is that you do experience two extremes of
emotion. There is nothing better than saving someone's life. I mean I know that sounds a little
sort of big headed but we actually do that quite often. Conversely, unfortunately there are
patients who have malignant brain tumours, and you can do the best technical operation, you can try
your hardest and you still have to watch the patient die. And that gives you a terrible feeling of
hopelessness and uselessness.

(Excerpt of consultation with Darryl Staples)

DARRYL STAPLES, PATIENT: So I'm actually up here to get the tumour out and go forward.

DR CHARLIE TEO: You don't want to think about it for a while? (Laughs)


DR CHARLIE TEO: I think we should go ahead and do surgery and if you want to do it, we can do it
tomorrow for you. (Darryl's wife Karen Staples, crying) Now you can stop that crying right now
Karen, we'll have none of that in this room thank you very much (laughs). Really, I mean, I think
he's going to be fine.

(End of excerpt)

DARRYL STAPLES, PATIENT: I think he's vibrant. I think he's colourful. He definitely knows what
he's talking about and he just portrays confidence. Obviously Dr Teo is a newer breed type doctor.
He's not of the more conservative type doctor that you would come across in this probably line of
medicine. So they have a different outlook on things so I felt very comfortable with the way he
dealt with it.

DR CHARLIE TEO: Where did it start? I blame my mother (laughs). She was the one that taught me a
lot of the moral code by which I live now, that you had to be acutely honest, even if it was
painfully honest or even if it got you into a bit of hot water then it's better to be honest and
honest to yourself than dishonest, and in the long run it'll always pay off.

DR STANLEY CHEN, GENERAL SURGEON: As a little boy he loved excitement, adrenaline, a bit of drama.

DR CHARLIE TEO: I think we first met each other when we were both nine years old.

DR STANLEY CHEN, GENERAL SURGEON: In boarding school. He was full of energy, so it was never
surprising to me that he would end up in the surgical field, either that or you know, a top gun
jet, fighter jet pilot or something like that (laughs).

DR CHARLIE TEO: After I decided I wanted to do medicine I had to do something with my hands. I had
to be practical and surgery just seemed the natural speciality to get into. There was a program on
TV when I was a young fella. I think it was called Dr Kildare. I can remember watching one episode
where he needed very steady hands to get some tumour out, or it might have been a bullet out of
someone's head or something. Thereafter I used to always try little exercises about keeping my hand
very, very steady for one day having to disarm a bomb or take a tumour out of a brain. So... you
know maybe I was always destined to do neurosurgery because I actually do remember doing that when
I was a very young fellow.

DARRYL STAPLES, PATIENT: Today is the day for the operation. The main thing that is going through
my head is the skill and the talent of the doctor. So everything I think about, I'm coming up with
Charlie, Charlie, Charlie, rather than Darryl, Darryl, Darryl because he's the one that's got to do
it, not me, and his confidence that he exuded yesterday in the discussion with me has stayed with

DR CHARLIE TEO: (Looking at Darryl's scans) God, that's bigger now than it was a few days ago if
you look at his hard copy scans, yeah. It's growing really, really rapidly. I think the diagnosis
unfortunately is going to be a malignant tumour. You want to be realistic with patients and make
sure they know that things are probably not going to be good but you don't want to dash all their
hopes either. There is a fine line. I hope I don't cross it and maybe sometimes I do. Neurosurgery
is arguably the most emotionally and physically taxing speciality in medicine. It is a speciality
where you cannot make mistakes. It is totally unforgiving. When you're digging in or delving into
someone's brain, you are really getting into the true essence of the person. Just with the slip of
a hand or the sacrifice of a small vessel, you can change someone's complete quality of life. So
when someone allows you into their brain, I mean that is a great privilege. And I love music that
relaxes me when I'm operating because you know, surgery can get quite stressful. I don't like
listening to music that you can't sing along to and you can't hum to, so I like John Denver and The
Carpenters, ABBA. I mean that sort of nerdy music.

KAREN STAPLES, DARRYL STAPLES' WIFE: You know when they say you fall in love with your doctor, I
have (laughs). He's just one of those people that give you that confidence and strength. Yes I'm
actually surprised or shocked to hear that other doctors have this negative attitude towards Dr
Teo. That just... yeah that just shocks me, I can't believe that.

DR PETER NAKAJI, AMERICAN NEUROSURGEON: I'm from California, and I came out about 18 months ago to
spend six months with Charlie. My impression of how Charlie is looked at by the establishment here
is that he is seen as a bit of a maverick. That he's maybe seen as a bit of a cowboy. He certainly
has ruffled a lot of feathers. He's seen as someone who comes in with his own ideas and maybe
doesn't regard the general atmosphere around him in the medical community too much, I think that
that's all pretty much true.

DR CHARLIE TEO: I guess my life has always been a little bit controversial and it was certainly
controversial when I was a resident in training.

DR STANLEY CHEN, GENERAL SURGEON: There had been a campaign by the resident medical officers at RPA
to limit very long hours that they were expected to work, and they wanted somebody with
particularly long hours to appear before the media. And poor Charlie was actually not part of this
campaign at all but he agreed to appear on behalf of the Resident Medical Officers Association at
RPA. And unfortunately it was seized upon by the establishment and Charlie bore the brunt of all
that. The problem with Charlie is that he doesn't shirk exposure or publicity and I suppose at the
end of the day it wasn't very wise of Charlie to agree to that sort of thing, because you could
foresee that that sort of trouble would arise.

DR CHARLIE TEO: When I finished my neurosurgery training, I think I'd pissed off so many people
that no one was willing to give me a job. Not only that, no one was also willing to organise my
training overseas so I had to do it myself. I wrote to all the neurosurgeons in America who I had
some respect for or heard about and I got a job in America.

DR PETER NAKAJI, AMERICAN NEUROSURGEON: You know, I think in the United States he doesn't stand out
so much. You know he certainly is not looked at as a crazy guy or a maverick or anything. I mean he
is a frequent speaker at our national meetings and doesn't raise any controversy and people love
him. They really enjoy being around him.

DR CHARLIE TEO: I felt that I did fit in nicely when I went to America. It was during my years in
America that I helped develop neuroendoscopy. Neuroendoscopy is the application of an endoscope,
kind of like a telescope, through a small opening in the skull, allowing you to perform minimally
invasive keyhole surgery. We started doing operations that weren't done before using the endoscope
and finding great success with these operations.

DR STANLEY CHEN, GENERAL SURGEON: When Charlie came back he certainly became someone I feel that
was very attractive for the media to follow and he did not actively discourage that. The medical
establishment has an unwritten code of silence almost. You don't appear to be any sort of high
flyer or to stand out from the crowd. There is this unwritten code which Charlie is perceived to
have broken. Possibly his peers and colleagues feel that they've put in a lot of hard work as well
and they are good at what they do, and they don't necessarily attract such attention from the
media. Maybe there is a little bit of resentment there, I don't know.

DR CHARLIE TEO: A significant percentage of my patients have been told that their tumours are
inoperable, and I have not agreed with that assessment. This is where I've really got myself into a
lot of trouble.

DR EDWARD MEE, NEW ZEALAND NEUROSURGEON: Well there's been some promotion of Charlie Teo as
offering something special and that concerns me.

DR CHARLIE TEO: When you take out that brain tumour and someone else has said that that brain
tumour is inoperable, it makes the first person look like they have told the patient the wrong
thing. And I concede that, it doesn't look good, but I am not going to stop doing what I do. I am
not going to refuse to do surgery on people with brain tumours that I feel are operable just so I
don't rock the boat, or just so I don't hurt someone else's feelings.

DR EDWARD MEE, NEW ZEALAND NEUROSURGEON: We can take out the most active lump or the dead part of
the brain that we can see on the scan, but the tumour remains. And it's unrealistic to give false
hope to patients, to say that by taking out the piece on the scan we have cured you of this tumour.

DR CHARLIE TEO: In the majority of cases we are delaying someone's death but if they have quality
of life, then you're not delaying their death, you're prolonging life. The thing I resent is if the
first neurosurgeon says to that patient, when the patient says I'm going to Charlie Teo for a
second opinion, if he or she says, I wouldn't do that if I were you. And they've used all sorts of
different excuses. They've told patients that I failed my exams. They've told patients that, you
know, you've only seen the good patients, there's a lot of bad patients out there you know. They've
told patients that, you know, I'm doing it for the money.

DR STANLEY CHEN, GENERAL SURGEON: He knows that he is being watched. His every move is being
scrutinized because there are people who resent him in various ways. And if he makes a false move,
well it gives people ammunition to try to shoot him down.

(Charlie visits Darryl after surgery)

DR CHARLIE TEO (To Darryl): Squeeze my fingers with this hand. Good boy. And with your left hand
squeeze my fingers. Good boy. Fantastic. And just wiggle these toes on the right side. See what you
can do on the left side there. Yeah, yeah, fantastic. See if you can bend your knee.

(End of excerpt)

DR CHARLIE TEO: I concede that there are some people who find me a bit of a threat and would like
to see the back of me. I am a threat to people who don't believe deep inside that they're treating
their patients the way they should be. For every disbeliever and every discrediter there are people
out there who appreciate what I am doing and don't want to see the back of me.

(Excerpt of Charlie Teo visiting with Darryl and Karen Staples in Hospital)

KAREN STAPLES, DARRYL STAPLES' WIFE(To Charlie): No matter what the outcome was going to be, we
knew you did the best.

DR CHARLIE TEO: Oh that's very nice.



KAREN STAPLES, DARRYL STAPLES' WIFE: And it helped us just with your attitude.

DR CHARLIE TEO: Well thank you, thank you. You can give me another kiss if you want (laughs).

KARENSTAPLES: That's all I was doing it for (laughs). No only joking.

(End of excerpt)

DR PETER NAKAJI, AMERICAN NEUROSURGEON: Charlie does not want to be seen as a God-like figure. He's
the antithesis of that. He spends a lot of time getting to know his patients, and I would often be
working in another room and I would hear a roar of laughter come out of the room, and this is not
something you'd normally hear coming out of the room of a person seeing people with brain tumours.

DR CHARLIE TEO: Getting involved with your patients is a very difficult topic with me. It really is
a two-edged sword. The flip side unfortunately is that it does impose on your life. It imposes on
your family. I have had a lot of my patients back to my home for dinner, I've been to their homes,
I've been to funerals, and it's really emotionally taxing and it's exhausting and it impacts on my
kids. I remember when I lost a little girl who was just the most beautiful girl and I just couldn't
stop crying. I cried terribly and uncontrollably in front of the family and I cried when I came
home and I cried for weeks thereafter. My children cried.

GENEVIEVE TEO, WIFE: It gets a bit hard I think sometimes because we and even the children kind of
get a little bit wrapped up in certain patients who maybe aren't doing as well as they should be or
could be. And it will get to a point where I will have to say that's enough. You know, I really
don't want to know about any more patients, any more really, really sad stories for a while because
we have to maintain you know, a sort of happy environment for the children. It can't be all be doom
and gloom.

DR CHARLIE TEO: Tonight we're having the gala dinner launch of the Cure for Life foundation. It was
a dream of mine to launch this foundation when I returned from America because what I want is not
only to have a lab and laboratory research, but I want to provide the latest technology that's
available in the world to Australians, and that needs money.

(Excerpt of Gala Dinner Speech)

GRETEL KILLEEN, MC: (To Charlie on stage) What are the goals?

DR CHARLIE TEO: Well that is the goal, the goal is to find a cure for life. At the moment with
malignant tumours we can cure them for a certain time period. Well it's not really a cure I guess
if we're just buying them a bit of time. Yeah I want to find a cure for life, I want to be able to
give them some sort of treatment that allows them to continue with life and die of old age.

GRETEL KILLEEN, MC: Thank you Charlie. Dr Charlie Teo.

(End of excerpt)

DR CHARLIE TEO: I was a little but disappointed with the number of colleagues who turned up. There
were only three other neurosurgeons there that night. There is a small group that are still not
quite willing to accept what I have to say and are quite critical. Unfortunately they are quite
vocal that group. A lot of neurosurgeons in Australia are good colleagues and good friends of mine.

GENEVIEVE TEO, WIFE: I'd like to see him be considered more mainstream. Lots of friends and myself,
we have spent hours trying to school him on diplomacy and, you know, did you have to be that blunt
about it? But he just, you know, he just can't do it. He's tried and he just can't do it.

(Charlie and band mates warm up for bagpipe march)

DR CHARLIE TEO: Currently we're at Bundanoon for the Brigadoon Highland Gathering, Scottish
festival. We've been invited down to play the Scots College old boys pipe band. The bagpipe music
stirs me to great heights (laughs).

GENEVIEVE TEO, WIFE: I think the media attention is starting to wear us both down a little bit. I
must admit I'm a little bit sick of it all, and hopefully it will be the last time you see me and
him on TV but I don't know.

(End of excerpt from Australian Story, 2003)

DR CHARLIE TEO: Well that was eight years ago. I'm still playing bagpipes, still playing them
badly. Unfortunately I have been on TV quite a bit and I'm still getting into trouble, but that's
me. So just earlier this year I found myself in another unwanted controversy. The controversy was
that I offered "a day with Charlie Teo" as an auction item to raise money for cancer research, and
the winner of the auction item would then spend a day either watching me deal with patients or
watching me operate in the operating room. But someone got hold of this auction item and thought
that it was a case of surgical voyeurism and unethical behaviour. It's raised well over $50,000 all
up for brain cancer research both with the Cure for Life and the Cancer Council. I believe, I
haven't had a formal letter from the College of Surgeons, but I believe the college of surgeons
feel like they've pursued it enough and will not be carrying out any disciplinary action against

KAREN STAPLES, DARRYL STAPLES' WIFE: Darryl after the operation survived 16 months, which was a lot
longer than what they had given him to start with. Originally we were told that he would probably
only have around three weeks because the tumour was very aggressive.

DARRYL STAPLES, PATIENT: (Footage from eight years earlier) I'm 52 years old and I'd anticipate
living to 75, 80, 85 like most people.

KAREN STAPLES, DARRYL STAPLES' WIFE: That allowed Darryl to enjoy a lot of special memories,
moments with his family and friends. We managed to get him to a lot of football games and a lot of
parties and he loved that. I think Dr Teo does marvellous work. I still love him. I think I said
that on the last time. Yeah, no he's very good. He gives people some hope.

DR CHARLIE TEO: The Cure for Life foundation, which I believe was just starting at the time of the
Australian Story, has now been going for about nine years and we've raised over $6 million. It's
now the largest funder of brain cancer research in Australia. So in the last few years I've been
operating overseas more than I did before. During one of my operations in Sweden I actually got to
meet ABBA. Unfortunately I didn't meet all four of them, but Benny and Bjorn, and it was one of the
greatest days of my life. The motorbike is sitting in the garage at the moment collecting dust
because I can't ride it. I've lost my licence for nine months. I was speeding, I deserve it, I'm
paying the price. I'm an idiot (laughs). I guess I've mellowed a little bit. Nothing has changed
when it comes to the critics. I guess what's changed is my attitude towards it. I used to get angry
and I still I guess deep down inside get a little bit angry but it's almost like I've grown to
expect it and so it's something that I just figure I have to live with. My aim, my goal is to find
a cure for brain cancer. I haven't done it yet. So no I've got a lot more to do. You're going to
see me around for a lot longer.


Dr Teo's critics again declined the invitation to be interviewed for this program.

The College of Surgeons says "Mr Teo is a Fellow in good standing, working within Neurosurgical