The surgical headache

A tumour stuck to an ‘arrogant’ vein reminds this surgeon about the need to exercise discretion

A 28-year-old slammed his MRI films on my desk, profusely sobbing away without my having the slightest clue of what was going on. He was lean, well-built and wore track pants and a tight-fitting white shirt. I waited patiently till the wailing ebbed and made way for intermittent snivels, which he wiped away with the tissue I’d handed him. His wife sat next to him with her hand on his back, gently patting it until his face was dry, his eyes remaining swollen and bloodshot.

“I have a 6-cm malignant brain tumour,” he lamented, his first words to me as he tried to come to terms with how his life had changed with a single scan of the head. “What prompted your doctor to get a scan?” I enquired in my ‘I’ve got his under control’ voice, calmly guiding the conversation to become less dramatic. “I had headaches for a week, which weren’t getting any better, and then I started waking up with them,” he answered. “Any blurring of vision, nausea, vomiting, imbalance while walking?” I asked as a routine follow-up question, a yes to which might suggest raised intracranial pressure. “No!” he shook his head in disbelief, clearly thinking that at least a few of those symptoms should have been present if his headache was this serious.“They don’t have to be,” I replied, explaining, “Headaches don’t read text books. I’ve gone hoarse telling people that if a headache doesn’t settle down in a few weeks, it warrants a scan. Nine times out of ten it’ll be normal,  but I can show you dozens of patients with brain tumours, and all they had was a dull aching headache!”

On examination, I found his neurological status to be intact. His eye movements were okay, the motor and sensory function in his limbs was fine, and he walked heel to toe without losing his balance. I plugged the MRI films into the viewing box and peered through it very intently. I went through the entire set of 8 films that showed the tumour in different dimensions. I scanned through the accompanying report once again. The couple waited with trepidation for my verdict.

“This is not malignant for sure,” I decreed. “But the report says it’s a medulloblastoma,” the man exclaimed, “and I’ve been reading about it online and it’s supposed to be a highly malignant tumour. I’ve been devastated all weekend knowing I have only a few years to live.” I reached over to reassure him. “This is a meningioma. It’s a benign tumour arising from the tentorium, the dural layers that separate the forebrain from the hindbrain. Because its grown so big, it’s compressing the 4th ventricle and the brain stem and pushing the cerebellum apart. The guys at the scan centre have mistakenly inferred this to be a malignant tumour because one is commonly seen in this location. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about,” I reiterated, carefully studying the frayed margins of the tumour on the scan and pointing it out to him.

“This is a huge relief, that this is not malignant,” he said, still looking at me in disbelief. “But we still have to take care of your headache by removing this, and it’s a technically formidable operation,” I admitted. “It’s stuck to the vein of Galen, one of the main veins that drains the deep venous system. If that gets injured, you could be in a coma. Galen was the Greek physician to describe it,” I said, adding on some trivia to lighten the mood. I explained to him all the possible routes we could use to reach the meningioma given that it was smack in the centre of the brain. He was ready. I called up and booked the operation theatre for a 12-hour slot the following week.

A few days later we positioned him Concorde. It’s where the patient is turned prone and the head is raised above the level of the body and then flexed to resemble the design of the plane. This gives us a straight shot at the target. We made an incision down the back of his head up to where it met the neck, getting down to the bone, which we removed as a flap to put back later. The cerebellum was very tense. We drained some cerebrospinal fluid after opening the dura and appeased it. “Never retract a swollen brain,” I remembered the teachings of my mentor. We kept releasing the brain fluid until the cerebellum was almost sulking.

Choosing a narrow corridor below the tentorium and above the cerebellum, we encountered the tumour. As I had predicted, it was attached to the under-surface of the tentorium. I coagulated it with bipolar forceps, killing its blood supply and turning a fiery ball into its ashen counterpart. I used an ultrasonic aspirator and gobbled up the core, allowing the tumour to fall on itself, after which we daintily peeled it off the surrounding brain that it was pushing against.

The surgery carried on elegantly for several hours until we approached the very end, when my assistant cut into the last bit of tumour and it bled profusely. “Shit,” I swallowed a few expletives, “is that the vein of Galen?” My heartbeat was racing uncontrollably. We controlled the bleeding in a series of quick synchronized manoeuvres and concluded that it was a tumour vessel. The vein of Galen was just behind it, pulsating arrogantly, cautioning us to beware of it. Not wanting to tempt fate, we left a few millimetres of the tumour on the vein. “It’s benign,” I told my colleague, “Nothing’s going to happen.” Discretion is the better part of valour, we’ve learned in medicine.

Galen was the author of more than 500 papers, and gave his name to the great cerebral vein (of Galen) and also to the nerve of Galen, the communicating branch of the internal laryngeal nerve with the recurrent laryngeal nerve, all of this before he died in 200 AD. During his brilliant career, Galen compiled more than 300 books, of which around 120 are still available for our study. It is a small wonder, then, that this medical colossus reigned like a dictator over the world of medical science for almost 1,500 years.

Our patient woke up the next morning with his speech slightly slurred, his eyes bobbling a little and his balance all over the place. “All these are indications of where we’ve fiddled around, and it’ll settle down,” I reassured him, and he noticed the improvement himself over the course of a few days. By the time he was discharged, he wanted to ballroom dance with me. There, too, discretion was the better part of valour.

30 Comments on “The surgical headache
  • Yasmin Ghaswala says:

    Lovely. So lucid and visually beautiful and factual. Thanks Mazda. 😊. Maybe that’s why they’ve constructed a speed breaker just outside your place 🤔.?

  • Sanjay P Sonar says:


  • Vineeta Rao says:

    You must have nerves of steel , patience, stamina to conduct such miracle surgeries ,Dr Mazda! Thanks for sharing .

  • Navzer Irani says:

    We can emotionally feel like dancing with you. That was the day u played GOD for that patient. May HE truly bless u for looking after his kin.

  • Supriya Correa says:

    Lovely! Posts like these are a warm hug on a Sunday morning. Which also begets the question, can real neurosurgeons dance?

  • Taizoon Khorakiwala says:

    A Sunday must read from the writer-surgeon who makes life n death medicine sound like fun and adventure.

  • Dr Ram Dama says:

    Excellent explanation and good case .. thank you sir for sharing the case.. We are waiting eagerly for Sunday for your written cases…

  • Vipul Shah says:

    Dearest Dr Mazda Sir …..

    Congratulations once again as usual taking all your readers inside OT …..
    Your writing abilities are so lucid & stylist that you make non medical people feel that they understand complicated Medical Terminology as if they are Neurosurgeon 🤣

    God has given you multiple Talent of surgery,writing, Tracking, parenting, Columnists, photography, Pleasant communication etc etc

    May you keep on doing all activities of your choice & be always HAPPY

  • T George Koshy says: people commenting before me have mentioned u take us with u into the OT and into the operating field with ur vivid descriptions..”cerebellum was almost sulking “😂😂..”turning a fiery ball into its ashen counterpart”..”daintily peeling off”..👏👏👍👍..Thank God and thanks to u the patient is better now..keep operating Dr Mazda..God bless all your efforts and don’t ever stop writing either..

  • Nelly says:

    You are really a fabulous doctor……who also writes so well…

  • Rita singh says:

    Thanks for this writing. I too was operated by u for the same problem four years back and felt being transported back in time. U r such lovely person and a brilliant doctor. Anybody getting in touch with u cannot help loving and admiring u for the rest of her life. Thanks a million again.

  • Zarin Bahmani says:

    Also loved the dancing bit at the end! What a gift you have Dr Mazda. Thank you for sharing your experiences! God bless you.

  • Firuza Noshir Kasad says:

    Absolutely agree with all of the above. God bless you Mazda!

  • Vispi mistry says:

    What a wonderfully written piece as always virtually turned this operation into a live one to one with this man’s brain. Be int a scapel or a pen both these instruments are and extension of your body.

  • Anuradha says:

    Hi Mazda
    Beautiful writing indeed! I felt like ‘Alice’in Wonderland, stupefied yet thrilled to explore an awe inspiring terrain, the human brain with an awesome navigator, yourself! Love the way you write and please keep going. These real life stories are better than most novels. Completely rivetting

  • Dorothy Mupfanochiya Thanks says:

    Always look forward to these write ups.
    I learn a lot from them in a relaxed environment.
    You are God sent for real. Touching so many lives on different continents.
    All the best from Zimbabwe.

  • Farokh P Bharucha says:

    Commendable Dr. Mazda you really are a true gem
    Hats of to you .👍👍👌👌👌

  • Porus k Chinoy says:

    Dr Mazda hats off to your surgical and literary skills.

  • Anita says:

    Gripping description, ending well! , great 👍👍

  • Cashmira says:

    Wow Dr Mazda you are a god to all these patients.
    I also believe you are blessed in this lifetime to be able to conduct such minute surgeries and save countless lives…. Such excellence…. And superb work.

  • Natwar Panchal says:

    You are great Dr.

  • Dr Indu Bansal says:

    Commendable job yet again by a person who is good not just with his scalpel and his pen but a winner of many hearts by his exceptional writing skills.

  • Dr. Pradip Kumar Tiwari says:

    Reminds me the scene of Zaheer in Munna Bhai MBBS. Wish Munna Bhai was a neurosurgeon then and had Zaheer been successfully operated. Getting to this wonderful write up on your experience, I congratulate you sir and pray to God that no one should live in disbelief and misery. May everyone gets a second chance too.

  • Dr. Khushroo E Patel says:

    Mazda, you truly are a wizard with the words and a swashbular with the knife.
    In 1963 my 1st surgical rotation was at Mt. Sinai Chicago on the neurosurgery service.
    Unlike you the neurosurgeon was a pompous a***..
    In response to a question I named his competitor’s name and the flying scalpel missed me narrowly.
    Compassion is the foundation of humanity and you have perfected the art.

  • Chandan Rumi Sanjana says:

    Another excellent episode of this surgical genius you are blessed with. Thank God for people like you who give us hope when there are major problems with the brain and spine. Bless you and those hands that save lives..🙏🙏

  • Anjali Patki says:

    Your lucid writing paints a lively picture and one can visualise the entire scene, that too in 3 D. Keep up the great work

  • Dr Prashant Punia says:

    I gobble up these write ups like CUSA to meningioma.. feast for a young neurosurgeon.. Thanks for sharing sir

  • Dr hiten dadia says:

    It was journey all the way from patients heart to OT to back to all well

  • Mahashweta Biswas says:

    Mazda beautifully written. You have given us a complete visual experience from the time your patient visited you till he wanted to waltz or foxtrot with you. Congratulations on yet another successful operation.


  • Marzian Mowji says:

    Even Brain Surgery is interesting when you write about it.


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