Guests at the University's recent 2013 Golden Graduates Luncheon were captivated by the presentation from Ben Harley, a medical student and recipient of a W W Phillips Scholarship, which supported him to do an elective in Nepal earlier this year.
After nine years of study at the Auckland medical school, Ben is about to step out into "the real world of being a doctor". His first year will be in Whanganui and in the long term he hopes to work with patients with neurological conditions, either as a physician or surgeon. He spoke to the 303 guests at the luncheon about the learnings from his trip, and his aspirations for the future.
Ben's placement in Nepal allowed him to become engrossed in neurosurgery for two months, experiencing conditions that were basic compared with those in New Zealand and some medical situations which were quite extraordinary. He recounted a shocking story of a six-year-old patient who had been shot in the head and was living with a bullet in her brain. The team of surgeons was able to operate and even get to the point of touching the bullet but was unable to remove it.
"Luckily the bullet was in a location where it was not causing immediate harm so the hope is that it can sit there as she grows without causing any damage."
The other operation that he described was on a young girl with severe epilepsy, which was preventing her from leading a normal life. Ben witnessed an operation called "split-brain surgery", in which the main pathway connecting the two hemispheres of her brain was cut to prevent damaging electrical activity being conducted from one side to the other. The procedure carries considerable risks but, fortunately, the outcome for this young patient was positive.
"Afterwards the surgeon in charge of her case told me that an important test was to get her to touch her index fingers together, indicating the two sides of her brain were finding new ways to communicate. Fortunately after a few days she was able to do this, indicating she was on the road to recovery."
Ben says the Nepal experience also taught him some harsh lessons regarding his level of physical fitness. "There are few things more humbling to a mid-20s male than trekking along a path after weeks of training only to be overtaken by a group of primary school girls on their daily commute home!"
"Overall this was a fantastic opportunity and I am hugely thankful for the support of the University of Auckland and the W W Phillips scholarship that allowed me to do this. I hope other students can have such amazing experiences in the future."