UNSW SPOTLIGHT | CHARLIE TEO


By Kristina Zhou

Why the medical establishment hates him: Charlie Teo, UNSW Class of 1981.

Charlie Teo once guarded the hallways of UNSW balls as a bouncer; now he’s the miracle worker fighting to protect something even more important: patient autonomy.

He has earnt a public reputation as the go to neurosurgeon for complex brain tumours most surgeons would deem too risky to operate on. When patients with brain tumours are given the prognosis of death, Charlie is considered their last ray of hope. He has pioneered minimally invasive keyhole techniques that have not only expanded the types of brain tumours that can be operated on, but also reduced the amount of physical trauma and recovery time for patients. And the achievements and accolades don’t stop here. He was made a Member of The Order of Australia in 2011, gave the official Australia day speech in 2012, co-authored three medical books, is a Conjoint Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales medicine faculty and he’s even had a seafood stuffed spring roll named after him (ask for Dr Teo’s rolls at the Golden Century in Sussex street).

On paper Charlie flows like the typical type A high achiever on steroids, however, Charlie isn’t a conventional neurosurgeon by any means: he doesn’t own a car (he prefers the exhilarating speed of riding a motorcycle), he’s undertaken a mechanic apprenticeship, earnt his black belt in karate and despite his wealth he still packs “take away doggy bags” at restaurants. Yet within his own surgical profession, people view him through the lenses of an outsider. It’s precisely his courage to go forward with operations that his peers deem too risky, that has made him a pariah within the medical establishment.

When most doctors answer the universal medical school admissions question, ‘why medicine?’, the common responses are usually their desire to save lives and serve people. Yet Charlie says the medical industry is a selfish landscape where some surgeons often put their own reputation and ego before the patient’s best interests. “Unfortunately, a small number of doctors are more concerned with their own empire building than patient care, confronted and insulted when patients request an explanation or a second opinion, unwilling to adapt to change and new treatment regimens and failing to continue self-education,” Charlie claims.

Ever the whistle-blower, Charlie dropped another bombshell: depriving patients of potentially life-saving or life-extending treatments is an unspoken practice that occasionally occurs within the neurosurgical field. Even if a neurosurgeon is certain they have the capability to strategically remove a patient’s tumour, if more prominent neurosurgeons label it ‘inoperable’, other neurosurgeons would be too afraid to provide dissenting opinions and are inclined to accept and support their opinion as ‘superior’. Not because patient safety is a key concern but rather to appease and sustain these surgeon’s egos, and therefore retain a favourable standing amongst the neurosurgical elite.

A neurosurgeon that Charlie highly respected, once gave him a lecture, whilst putting forth a damning confession: “You need to stop pissing people off. Even if you can perform a surgery, you need to tell families you can’t if it contradicts another surgeon’s opinion. I turn down patients all the time, even if I know I can do it. If you don’t piss neurosurgeons off, eventually you’re going to save more lives because they will refer more patients to you.” Charlie courageously responded, “I can’t do that.”

People in the neurosurgical field call him reckless, they say he’s the one that is driven by ego, operating on so called ‘inoperable’ patients to further his own “miracle doctor” agenda. Charlie makes it clear that he doesn’t just dive in risk deep: he understands there are limitations and he does weigh up risks versus benefits. There are some operations that just aren’t feasible, but with the right equipment, team and personal skillset, if Charlie assesses your situation and believes there is a glimmer of hope, he will offer to operate on you, regardless of whether or not it’s approved by his fellow neurosurgeons.

Charlie has challenged traditional protocols imposed on medical practitioners and exposed how conventions can prove limiting and be detrimental to many patients’ fates. The case studies below demonstrate exactly why defying medical conventions can sometimes be lifesaving.

MYTH EXPOSED: CONSULT YOUR PEERS AND TAKE THEIR OPINIONS AND OLD MEDICAL LITERATURE AS GOSPEL.

CASE STUDY 1:

Fiona was told by multiple neurosurgeons that she had an inoperable benign brain stem glioma. She didn’t question the professionals and 7 years later she became quadriplegic, wheelchair bound, and oncologists told her there was no hope left: she would only have a few weeks left. Grasping onto the fragile strings of life, tying a knot and refusing to let go, she sought Charlie’s opinion. Charlie said operation was feasible and performed life-saving surgery on her, despite other surgeons labelling her tumour “inoperable” and guess what? She’s alive and well 10 years after the surgery.

CASE STUDY 2:

An 18-month-old was diagnosed with a malignant brain stem glioma. Her mother consulted the world’s leading brain centres and was told the devastating news that it was a malignant DIPG- the deadliest and most aggressive form of brain tumour and inoperable. Charlie Teo offered her surgery and in 6 hours managed to remove the entire tumour and discovered that the tumour wasn’t actually malignant, it was benign. She is three years old now and cured.

These survival despite the odds stories have become a paradigm in his career and serve as reverberating reminders of why he continues to venture against the boundaries placed on him.

Charlie identified that the central problem with the medical profession, particularly the neurosurgical field, is the unwillingness to question norms, overturn old guidelines and push the envelope to achieve greater innovation. Charlie says, “People thought it was impossible to climb mount Everest in 1952. In 1953 Sir Edmund Hillary conquered Mount Everest.” There’s a common misconception that we’re at the final stages of innovation, that as a global community we have arrived at an age of unbeatable modernization. Charlie wants to disrupt this mentality – particularly within the medical landscape. He hopes that old roads are dismantled to pave the way for new roads. After all, how can we drive progression if we’re travelling on paths that have already been ridden?

Resilience and bravery were not innate within Charlie at a young age, but rather cultivated as a result of taunts, belittling and physical aggression towards him. As an Asian child growing up in the ‘70s, Australia was far less racially welcoming. Racism was rife, located in every corner and displayed with no shame. “My sister protected me from the racism. We'd be shopping at Bankstown [in Sydney's south-west] and the white kids would jeer at us. I would duck down in the car whilst Annie would puff her chest out, yap at them like a terrier, and they'd run away,” he explains.

Charlie was also consistently brutally beaten up by his father, he was uncontrollably violent, so much so that his mother had to take out a restraining order against Charlie’s father. “I came back home from school with a black eye, expecting some sympathy. Instead, my father beat me up for not fighting back,” Charlie recalls one particular beating.

Charlie’s propensity to lead the pack, challenge status quo and facilitate change, transcends the medical landscape. He’s spoken out against the corporatisation of charities; angry that administration fees disproportionately overshadow the amount of money actually being directed to the cause. Aiming to remove corporate greed from the charity sector, he made an uncomfortable decision in 2017, to walk away from the charity he personally started (Cure Brain Cancer Foundation), after the executive management refused to lower overhead costs. He’s since lead by example and started a new charity now called The Charlie Teo foundation; for every dollar his charity earns, ninety-five cents goes towards the real cause and not unnecessary overheads.

It appears that singularly standing up to collective powers of deceit and injustice, has always been Charlie’s lifelong forte. Whether it’s in the medical profession, within the charity landscape or even surprisingly enough, as a bouncer. During his time as a medical student, he worked as a bouncer for clubs, hotels and even the University of New South Wales. On one occasion, Charlie says, he “took on about 16-20 guys in the back lane who were trying to break into a UNSW ball.” “If you take on a big group of guys, you hit the guy with the biggest mouth, the guy who is leading the pack. If you can floor him and overcome him, the others become scared and back off. I Identified the ring leader, I just absolutely gunned him and then I go who’s next? And they all back off.” Proving that he’s not only book smart but also remarkably street smart; never diving into anything without a sharp strategy.

And for the detractors that claim he is egotistic, narcissistic and conceited? Try confident. Conceit is assuming infallibility and projecting an air of superiority with nothing to back up your claims. Confidence is about embracing your strengths, whilst acknowledging that you don’t have the Midas touch in everything. And that’s exactly what Charlie has always depicted.

“There’s a lot of things that I don’t think I’m the best at and I refer those patients on to who I think are best but when it comes to brain tumours- there’s no better,” Charlie laughs.

Walama Muru

Phil'

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