Trailblazing Neurosurgeon, Andrew Alalade – “Life is usually unfair…get used to it!”

Career Insights speaks to Andrew Alalade on what it takes to become an award-winning neurosurgeon.

Source: Andrew Alalade

Profile
Age: 38
Country of Origin: Nigeria
Current Location: London, United Kingdom


Tell us about your background?
I was born in Wales, and started my school education in the United Kingdom but completed the rest of my primary school education in Nigeria. I had my secondary school education at the Nigerian Military School before going to study Medicine at the country’s Premier University – University of Ibadan.  My neurosurgical residency training was done in the London North Thames rotation and I had the privilege of training in some of the United Kingdom’s top neuroscience centres. Following the completion of my chief residency stint at The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square, London; I did advanced fellowships at the Weill Cornell Medical College – New York Presbyterian Hospital, United States and the Princess Alexandra Hospital, Brisbane in Australia.

I am a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, England (FRCS SN) and a Fellow of the European Board of Neurosurgical Societies (FEBNS). My Certificate of Completion of Training (CCT) was obtained in July 2016. The CCT confers the title of specialist Neurosurgeon at Consultant level, which gives permission to practise as one in the United Kingdom.

Why neurosurgery? What attracted you to it?
A bit of a funny story, this one. In a science class as a 13-year-old, I was extremely fascinated by my teacher’s explanation of the workings of the brain and the spinal cord. Imagining the intricate networks within the central nervous system kept me enthralled, and I decided shortly afterwards that I wanted to become a neurosurgeon.

At my 30thbirthday party, a former secondary schoolmate brought our school yearbook to the party and showed everyone what I filled in as my future ambition – “To Be A Neurosurgeon”. I actually used to have pictures of certain neurosurgeons on my bedroom wall as a kid. Thinking about it now, that was such a geeky thing to do.

In my second year of medical school, my dad was diagnosed with a brain tumour. It was a really tough period for my family at the time, and I am sure the experiences further intensified the zeal to become a neurosurgeon. Fortunately, I have learnt to draw from the memories of that bleak spell when interacting with my patients. A lot of patients and their family members always feel reassured when I share this story with them.

Why skull base neurosurgery and neuro-oncology, and not the other types of neurosurgery?
Complex brain tumours require painstaking skill when trying to remove them, either because of where they are located or because of the vital structures in close proximity.

Correlating the patient’s presentation to the radiological findings, carefully planning the surgery and ensuring the patient goes home safely are the things I live for. During my neurosurgical training, as I got optimal exposure to all the sub-specialties, these were the ones that appealed to me the most.

Did you always want to be a neurosurgeon?
Yeah, since I was 13 years old. It is funny when I think of that, as not many people would know what they want to become at that age. I must have been so lucky!

For the medical professionals and the young people looking forward to a medical profession, what are the three pieces of advice you would give them?
Hopefully, they will be as helpful as they have been for me…

  • Never give up!
  • Life is usually unfair, you’ve always got to remember that and get used to it!
  • Always be on the lookout for opportunities!
Source: Andrew Alalade

What is a typical day in the life of a skull base neurosurgeon?
For years, my alarm has always gone off at 4:30am, even if I don’t get up immediately.

Old habits die hard!

I am usually up by 5:30am and at work by 7am or even earlier if there is some big surgery planned. Patients appreciate the surgeon’s reassurance before their procedures. The operating lists usually last through most of the day, and I also do my best to see my patients and their family members after the surgery. The discussions before and after surgery are as helpful to the patient and their family as the surgery itself (sometimes even more), and I do not underestimate the benefits of this at all.

On other days, I review patients in clinics or see them on the wards.

Clinic consultations are mainly for elective patients or patients who have had surgery, so I do my best to discuss elaborately in layman’s terms and I often use drawings which makes it more interesting.

On other days, I engage in academic and/or administrative responsibilities e.g. teaching junior colleagues, writing papers and keeping up-to-date with the latest neurosurgical innovations.

What motivates you?
The goal to be the best I can be. It’s as simple as that, really!

What has been your biggest challenge so far in your career?
Life is always full of challenges, so there have been many of them. For years, people told me it would be impossible to train as a neurosurgeon in the United Kingdom. I hardly came in contact with black senior neurosurgeons during my training, and the few I heard about were not in the formal neurosurgical training programme. Several colleagues alluded to the fact that not having done my medical school education in the United Kingdom would be some sort of stumbling block. I was determined to succeed, and would stay up late reading my neurosurgical texts and spending time in the neurosurgical theatres. Keeping a healthy work-life balance is also a big challenge too. Neurosurgery can get very busy, so I always try to give quality time to my family when I am with them. If I am going to get it right in neurosurgery, then I have to get things right at home too. My wife and 2 kids mean the whole world to me!

Source: Andrew Alalade

 

How have you been so successful? Because you have received a number of awards to show for it.
Sometimes I still can’t believe I am the recipient of some of these awards. The Black British Business Award (STEM category) I got last year (2017) completely blew my mind. The awards are good, and I am grateful I got them but success for me is keeping my wife happy, enabling my kids to be at the “top of their game”, keeping my patients healthy, making sure my mentees achieve much more and contributing positively to whatever society I find myself in. I keep finding out that “SUCCESS” is dynamic, multifaceted and requires a lot of work.

What do you do in your free time?
Gosh! I wish I had a lot of free time. Watching movies at the cinema, reading books and following Arsenal FC’s games (when they decide not to break my heart) are the things I love to do. I also love to travel with my family whenever I can. Writing was something I did regularly before, but it seems to have died down a bit. I have been trying to work on the 2nd edition of my book, but being busy has not allowed me to get too much of that done. My creative muses and I might need to have a lengthy catch-up session.

Experiencing diverse cultures helps to expand my worldview and it always reminds me that there is still so much more to know and learn. So far, I have been to about 20 countries and I have still got over 170 to go. Ha!

What did you feel like when you first entered the operating room?
Awestruck that a room that looked so simple could be the site for many life-saving procedures. I still remember it clearly, as I was extremely impressed at how everyone seamlessly carried out their tasks.

Neurosurgery is fascinating to watch on TV shows but how real is it in reality? Do you think that TV shows take away the seriousness of that area of medicine or add to the seriousness of the field?
Naaaaah, it doesn’t take any seriousness away. I am an advocate of good health education, and good TV shows. Did you know that about 60 medical TV shows have been shown in the United States alone? In the UK, “Casualty” has been showing since 1986. The general population would always benefit from a well-written medical drama (with good actors/actresses). In today’s social media era, a lot of information could easily get relayed to so many people within a short period of time. I bought the CD pack of “Monroe” some years ago – it was a British medical drama TV series featuring a neurosurgeon played by James Nesbitt, and the filming was done in a school in Leeds. The producers got some colleagues of mine to help with suggestions on set, and it definitely showed.

How experimental can neurosurgery be?
Fortunately, because of years of research and the hard work put in by several pioneers, there has been an explosion of helpful knowledge regarding the central nervous system. As doctors, we are now able to help a lot of sick people based on well-proven evidence. However, there are still some things that are still not fully understood e.g. events at the cellular level within the brain, why some nerve/brain cells do not heal as well as some, why some tumours remain incurable and do not respond to any medications etc. Neurosurgical research continues to be more popular than ever and so much work continues to go on across most centres all over the world.

You’ve worked in different cities over the years; do you think that the accumulation of your experiences in those cities has influenced your character as a doctor in any way?
My exposure to different healthcare systems has reaffirmed one thing – Universal healthcare is the way forward. Each system has its own pros and cons, but any system that provides healthcare for the majority of its populace would always trump others. However, as providing healthcare is an expensive project, innovative ideas have to be continuously utilised and there should be an emphasis on keeping a happy and productive medical workforce.

Neurosurgeons are just like everybody else – no two are the same, and the different environments contribute to that too. Learning from different neurosurgeons has taught me that there are several ways of achieving good surgical results, and one particular method might not suit everyone.

To end the questions, what is the one thing in your career you’re looking forward to doing, that you haven’t done yet?
Writing more books, giving talks and influencing healthcare at a higher level. Watch this space!

Follow Andrew Alalade on LinkedIn.