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Playing for keeps

Cate Swannell
Med J Aust
Published online: 3 February 2014

Neurosurgeons see tough things, including young people killed and maimed by one punch. If you’re choosing it as a specialty, be prepared to do the hard yards, says Professor Andrew Kaye — one of the world’s best

Breaking the ice with the country’s leading medical practitioners can be an intimidating prospect. They are, in the main, driven, smart people who are focused on saving lives as often as they can, as efficiently as they can.

Professor Andrew Kaye, one of Australia’s most decorated neurosurgeons, is no exception. In his own words, neurosurgery “has to take over your life”.

“You can’t just play at it”, he tells the MJA. “You have to eat, drink, breathe it. You have to dream about it when you’re sleeping and think about it every waking moment. If you don’t you’re not a real neurosurgeon.”

There is, however, one tiny chink in Professor Kaye’s professional armour, and that is his soft spot for the Hawthorn Football Club, of which he is a director, and a member of 58 years’ standing. Can they win back-to-back AFL flags?

“Absolutely we can”, he says, before embarking on a 10-minute assessment of why the Hawks will be even better without Buddy Franklin.

Ice broken.

Professor Kaye’s grandparents came to Australia as Jewish refugees from Russia. His father was not allowed to go to the football because the games were played on the Jewish Sabbath.

But the president of the club at the time was Dr Jacob Jona, a prominent member of the Toorak Synagogue.

Professor Kaye’s father argued that if Dr Jona could go to the footy, he should be allowed to go, and his elder agreed, but only if he went with Dr Jona.

“So he did”, says Professor Kaye. “I can remember the first game my father took me to. I was 3 years old. It was against Geelong and Fred Flanagan was playing centre half-forward for the Cats.

“You only saw your father once a week in those days, and that was when he took you to the game.”

As in neurosurgery, you can’t just play at being a Hawthorn fan.

Professor Kaye’s medical career is as storied as his beloved Hawks’ premiership-winning record.

He graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1973, spent two years in Oxford as a neurosurgical registrar and a year in London doing research at the Institute of Neurology.

He came home to a post at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and, in 1992, was appointed Professor of Neurosurgery at the University of Melbourne, the first position of its kind in Australia. In 1997, he was appointed the James Stewart Professor of Surgery and chairman of the Department of Surgery.

He is the founding editor-in-chief of the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience. In 2003, the American Association of Neurological Surgeons honoured him with the Ronald Bittner Award for contributions to the treatment of brain tumours and, in 2006, the Bucy Award for his contribution to neurosurgery education. In 2004, he presented the Sir John Eccles Lecture at the Australian Neuroscience Society.

In 2010, he was awarded the Medal of Honor from the World Federation of Neurosurgical Societies for his “outstanding contribution to neurosurgery”. He was awarded the Commonwealth of Australia Centenary Medal in 2003 and Order of Australia in 2004.

There is still so much to discover about the human brain, he says.

“We’ve hardly started. If this were school, we’ve just graduated from kindergarten.”

As head of surgery — all surgery — Professor Kaye spends a lot of time talking with medical students about their future specialties, and he is even-handed, publicly at least, about where they should direct their passion.

“Of course”, he says, joking, “We all know if you’re not a neurosurgeon you’re a lesser form of life.”

Professor Kaye’s best advice to students is to “spread their net wide”.

“Do as much as you can, try everything, go wherever you can, and then make a decision.

“Spend a year doing research early in your postgraduate life. It teaches doctors so much about how to make evaluations.”

When he’s not saving lives and barracking for the Hawks, Professor Kaye is a football coach. It has led to his two passions coming together in unexpected ways.

“I was coaching the Kew Juniors”, he says. “James Macready-Bryan was one of my players.”

When James was assaulted in 2006, leaving him permanently and totally disabled with an acquired brain injury (ABI), it was Professor Kaye whom his parents called for help.

When they set up the JMB Foundation, which aims to provide appropriate accommodation, rehabilitation and financial support for young people with ABI, they asked him to be patron.

It’s a role he is pleased to fill.

“ABI is every parent’s worst nightmare”, he says. “They watch their children die, every day.

“There are no facilities — young people who are maimed by ABI are being housed in aged care homes, which is inappropriate.”

The issue of coward-punch assaults is at the forefront of public consciousness at the moment, but Professor Kaye isn’t convinced the current focus on alcohol is the right way to go.

“We can’t just blame this on alcohol”, he says. “It plays an important part, yes, but most people who get drunk don’t get aggressive in this way.

“I think there is a societal issue here and focusing just on alcohol is missing the point.”

Neurosurgery is, he says, “a tough life”.

“We see bad nightmares sometimes. It is an unforgiving kind of surgery in terms of the sort of work we do. The hours are really difficult and families have to embrace and accept it.

“That’s why you can’t just play at it. It’s all or nothing.

  • Cate Swannell


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