June 23-25 was the annual Hellenic (Greek) conference of neurosurgical society. A bunch of Greek neurosurgeons were gathering at Divani Caravel, a cool hotel in central Athens. I was invited to give the keynote lecture on “Intraoperative MRI and Fluorescent-guided resection of Gliomas”. Other speakers included Professor Hugues Duffau from Montpellier, Professor Bertalanffy from Hanover who took for some time Yasargil’s post in Switzerland and Professor Potapov from the famous Burdenko institute of Moscow.
My talk was Friday, five in the afternoon. It was a true honour for me to be invited by my Greek colleagues and this is how I started my talk. Simple and true! The chairman of my talk was the same professor of neurosurgery when I was doing my elective as a medical student in Thessaloniki. At the start of my talk I told him about the times when as a medical student was shadowing the resident on call. Still remember looking at the lit city of Thessaloniki three in the morning from the 6th floor of the Greek neurosurgery department. Then I was a super enthusiastic medical students, butting in to answer questions fired to residents. Now I was a Consultant at a world-renowned institution. I thanked him for the wonderful memories. I meant it! In my lecture I showed them surgical videos, told them patients’ cases along with their stories, shared operative tips and tricks, looking straight at their faces, people I never saw before, (never did neurosurgery in Greece other than in medical school), but the faces were calm, friendly, completely quite in the audience, people were absorbing every word.
At the end people were smiling, clapping, asking many questions. And then at the lobby more questions. One senior neurosurgeon from the island of Crete, big, fat moustache, wonderful beer-belly, short-sleeved shirt with buttons stretched to the max and about to burst, told me with loud voice and thick Cretan accent: “that case of the man who you thought he was going to die and his wife asked to bring his kids to see him for the last time did something here”, and touched his chest. Another surgeon told me he appreciated
that I shared some of my operative secrets “this took you time and hard work to
learn and you shared with us like that, we respect that!” There you go! I showed
them kit in action worth over three million pounds but what made the difference was
what always makes the difference when one person talks to another person (or
persons), talking with no agenda, no attempt to impress, talking from the heart.
After my talk Greek trainees came in flocks to ask for a bit of advice, how to further their careers, what to do. That reminded me the time I was looking to start my training after medical school. Bring back memories. Was it the right decision for me to leave Greece? If I never left what my capacity would be to this conference? The Greek way of daily life is awesome, people leave work about 2 pm (!) have cooked lunch at home, then have a nap (late spring and summer siesta is a must!) and then refreshed go out and stay out at least until midnight. And all this is on school day! But I remember Greek neurosurgery trainees when I was doing my elective as a medical student, fighting just to observe an operation through the microscope, limited skills, sparse training, no opportunities to grow and evolve. I didn’t want that for myself. Was it an easy decision for me to leave everything behind in Greece twelve years ago and come to another country with no introductions and no contacts in a place with a new system and different mentality? Not a lot! But I did (and do!) believe that life is full of wonders and adventures if people trust themselves and follow their heart and their restless minds, (everybody gets both), in whatever they want to do. So no regrets, I know I did the right thing, I followed my gut feeling and still do. And yes, I was very happy to give advice to Greek trainees, advice no one gave me when I was setting out, they don’t have to learn everything the hard way, although sometimes there is no better way to learn than to jump in, even if the water is freezing cold!
Have you heard about Greek hospitality? It’s totally true! Thursday night they took us out to “Dionysos”, a luxurious Greek restaurant overlooking the lit Parthenon (photo).
Two and a half thousand years old, the most breathtaking structure even made in history
of mankind. Friday night we went to “Moschato”, an original tavern where everything is made and cooked by hand.
Tables laid outside, summer breeze waving the white tablecloths, live orchestra (photo) signing outside until two in the morning in this urban neighbourhood (where none of the neighbours complained for the “noise”), strangers sitting at nearby tables singing along, further down a white church, kids playing, pensioners sitting in the benches, everybody and everything putting a colourful brush stroke in this wonderful painting.
Saturday was a break in Voulagmeni, a stunning beach about an hour’s drive from Athens. Green blue waters, sandy beaches, seaside fish restaurants, breathtaking sunset (photo). And in the warm night suntanned people in (mostly white) summer clothes sitting in cafes and beach bars, loud music, elaborate ice creams, chitchatting, God, I missed that childhood feeling so much!
Sunday night back to Heathrow. Monday and Tuesday on call, catching up with emails, letters, notes, requests, appointments, meetings and wardrounds. On call referrals, three patients with brain haemorrhage were referred within two hours, a young woman with a large pituitary tumour, two spinal tumours, a woman with breast cancer who needed urgent brain chemotherapy through a catheter we had to place within the fluid filled spaces of the brain called ventricles. Wednesday all day in operating theatre, wardround, and meeting with my team before I catch the late flight to Vienna. I was invited to give a lecture to about thirty UK trainees and Consultants at Le Meridian, Vienna.
Modern hotel, beautiful design, sculptures, bright colours, lifts with dim blue lights and sounds of ocean waves or forest sounds with birds chirping or country life with dogs barking. “Luxury has a soul” is the hotel’s moto (http://www.lemeridienvienna.com/). The meeting was great success. After the end of first day’s activities and before our dinner was time for a dip and free style in the swimming pool. Next day hands-on practical sessions. When we finished I had a few hours before my flight, time to hit the city. Vienna is rather small capital, just over a million and a half, but has style and elegance. Home of live orchestra balls, opera houses (Theatre an der Wien and the Staatsoper are the most well-known) (photo) sumptuous palaces and of course the birthplace of the Sachertorte, an 18th century chocolate sponge cake with rich layers of melted chocolate served with whipped cream, a day’s worth of calories packed in this bomb of chocolate! Vienna was home to Gustav Klimt, master of art nouveau, golden swirls, circles, squares, spirals, all coming to place to form the many faces of the eternal femme fatale. Viennese are friendly, methodical, punctual, smoking cigarets outside noisy cafes, drinking beer, having seemingly good time, no recession like Greece there.
But in Vienna the light was not strong, the sky was not deep blue, nothing like Athens where in the midst of social agitation and economic uncertainty, people seem to enjoy every moment to the full, yes, winging and moaning but then smiling while sipping retsina, a light white wine, under the shadow of Acropolis, hoping that tomorrow will be a better day. Mystical philosopher Heraclitus said it two and a half thousand years ago “A new day brings a brand new sun!”, who can argue with this?