Story transcripts
Charlie Teo

The outsider

Sunday, May 27, 2007
Reporter: Peter Overton
Producers: Glenda Gaitz, Lincoln Howes

Charlie Teo is an outsider, a maverick. Brash, aggressive, a dead-set alpha male who gets what we wants. He rides a Honda 900, plays the bagpipes and, let us tell you, he packs a mean punch.

He also happens to be one of Australia's top neurosurgeons, the d octor many brain tumour victims turn to when all else has failed.

To his patients, he's a saint and they come from all around the world begging him to save them. But the medical establishment loathes him, and some of his colleagues seem hell-bent on destroying him.

It says a lot about Charlie Teo that he's prepared to stand up and fight, while his enemies run for cover.


PETER OVERTON: Charlie Teo is a fighter … one of Australia's best and most controversial brain surgeons.

CHARLIE TEO: I see that as the brain tumour that needs to be destroyed. Really? Absolutely.

PETER OVERTON: But, for him, the greatest battles lie on the operating table. Twelve-year-old Nathan Bonnici is scared he's going to die. He's about to have a life-threatening operation. Nathan has a brain tumour the size of a walnut. Mum and dad, Donna and Cameron, have been told Charlie Teo is the one man who can remove it using a revolutionary surgical technique he's pioneered.

CHARLIE TEO: Nathan had a very difficult brain tumour. Uh, most people only remove tumours in that area maybe once or twice a year, and it's a bit of a no-go zone, a very sensitive, eloquent area of the brain.

PETER OVERTON: The tumour he wants to remove is intricately wrapped around the main arteries in Nathan's brain. Most surgeons wouldn't even attempt it. And that's why Charlie Teo is regarded with suspicion and even hostility by many of his peers — he goes where others fear to tread.

CHARLIE TEO: One slip of the knife — I could kill him I could paralyse him, I could blind him, all in this area.

PETER OVERTON: The absolute essence of the person you are dealing with here.

CHARLIE TEO: Absolutely, absolutely.

DONNA BONNICI: I'm still scared now because don't know where the tumour is pressing on the optic nerve, what the actual outcome is because it's such a delicate operation.

CHARLIE TEO: There's the optic nerve and right next to the optic nerve you can see that bit of tumour. See right there? It's going to be hard to get it out but let's see how we go.

PETER OVERTON: What is the pressure like when you're operating?

CHARLIE TEO: Well, uh, this is where that arrogance, confidence thing comes into it. Uh, some people call me incredibly arrogant, in fact a comment made about me was, 'Insurpassable arrogance', but there is a very fine line between arrogance and confidence.

PETER OVERTON: Arrogant or confident, Dr Charlie Teo is incredibly unpopular with some of his colleagues because he operates when they won't. Doctors and his own professional body, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, have phoned us, claiming Charlie Teo is offering false hope to the dying. They've even accused me of being irresponsible for embarking on this story because they say he simply doesn't deserve the spotlight.

CHARLIE TEO: I get the feeling sometimes they absolutely hate me.

PETER OVERTON: They call you a cowboy, a maverick.

CHARLIE TEO: Yeah, I've heard those terms before.

PETER OVERTON: Certainly not flattering terms when you are dealing with people's lives.

CHARLIE TEO: No, no, they're not flattering and they're a little bit, uh, upsetting, yeah. The thing I don't like and the thing I really resent is when they tell their patients, 'Oh don't go and see Charlie Teo. Oh no, no he's gonna give you false hope'. And they've said to my patients things like, 'Well, you might have heard about the good cases but, you know, I can tell you about the bad cases'. Now that's what I resent because all patients have the right to choose themselves who they wanna see and what risks they're willing to take.

PETER OVERTON: And, there's no doubt Charlie's last-resort brain surgery can be very risky. But he thrives on it — he's always been a risk-taker. And, even now, at nearly 50, he still doesn't live up to the conventional image of a leading neurosurgeon.

CHARLIE TEO: I've always been different. When I was at university I was a bouncer and they were tutoring maths. When they were buying their nice little sports cars I was riding a motorcycle.

PETER OVERTON: Maybe it's that rebel streak in Charlie that others resent. He doesn't quite fit in. Born in Sydney to Chinese parents, Charlie was educated at the exclusive Scots College. And the sight of a Chinese brain surgeon, playing bagpipes in a kilt with his old schoolmates on Anzac Day, just about says it all.

GENEVIEVE TEO: I know he's got a big personality and, he can be very direct at times. He sometimes hasn't got the best social radar.

PETER OVERTON: His wife, Genevieve, and their four daughters have learned to live with the spiteful sniping of Charlie's peers. Why do you think he's controversial and even disliked by some of his colleagues?

GENEVIEVE TEO: I think during his training he probably had a little bit of a reputation of being a bit of a bad boy. I mean, he was seen to be a little bit of a party animal, um, burning the candle at both ends and things like that.

CHARLIE TEO: I'm gonna dribble it. Here, watch this. My wife has always said she wants me to be mainstream one day and I think, you know, in America, I am … okay. Let's go, come on. It's only in Australia where I'm not considered mainstream and I'd really like that to happen.

PETER OVERTON: They accuse you, your critics — and admittedly it's a whispering campaign, they won't come on camera — but they say you operate on people when you shouldn't operate?

CHARLIE TEO: Yes, and I'll be the first to admit, Peter, not all my results are good and I do operate on some people and after the surgery, when it turns out to be a malignant tumour and, I've actually hurt them with my surgery, I think to myself, 'Oh, my God, why did I do that?' And I can see my critics almost, you know, uh, revelling in my failure. But I've never had a complaint from the patient. I've never had a complaint from the families.

STAN ZEMANEK: Let me tell you, I would have Charlie in my corner any day of the week.

PETER OVERTON: Indeed, Charlie Teo's patients can't praise him enough. They come from all over the world, from all walks of life.

STAN ZEMANEK: Mr Howard, good evening.

PETER OVERTON: And, like former Sydney radio personality Stan Zemanek, they regard him as a hero.

STAN ZEMANEK: That's just about it, isn't it? That's just about it, we've come to the end of the road.

PETER OVERTON: Zemanek signed off from radio for the last time because of incurable brain cancer.

STAN ZEMANEK: Everyone gave me exactly the same prognosis — that I was in deep doodoo. Some of the doctors said, 'You might last, a month, you might last two months'. I'm still here, I'm still punching away, still fighting and the reason I'm here is because of Charlie.

PETER OVERTON: Jane McGrath is another of Charlie Teo's high-profile patients. The wife of cricketing legend Glenn McGrath has lived through an extraordinary 10-year battle with cancer. When the disease returned for a third time, doctors found a tumour in her brain.

JANE MCGRATH: I thought, 'There's no way I'm gonna have brain surgery, there is no way anyone's cutting into my head. No, no, I'm not doing it'.

PETER OVERTON: But then she heard about Charlie Teo.

JANE MCGRATH: I rang Charlie and I would have spoken to him for about two minutes and I came off the phone punching the air, going, 'Yeah!' He turned me around in two minutes. Great salesman because there was no way I was doing it before I picked up the phone and after two minutes talking to him I felt like, 'Oh yeah, this is easy'.

PETER OVERTON: So, health-wise, where are you?

JANE MCGRATH: I'm in remission.

PETER OVERTON: Doesn't get any better than that?

JANE MCGRATH: At last, my goal, and I'm there.

PETER OVERTON: But young Nathan Bonnici's greatest battles lie ahead. To remove his tumour, Charlie is using rare keyhole surgery, a non-invasive technique he's pioneering here in Australia. Instead of cutting Nathan's head open and leaving a disfiguring scar, he's removing the tumour through a tiny incision in his eyebrow.

CHARLIE TEO: You go through the eyebrow and sneak underneath the brain and it gives you very good access to this part of the brain.

PETER OVERTON: But suddenly, Charlie strikes a problem — he can't free the tumour from Nathan's brain.

CHARLIE TEO: This is where the patient could potentially die if you pull too hard on this. So as you can see, I'm pulling and it's not coming so things are a bit hairy at the moment. Yep, too hairy, in fact.

PETER OVERTON: After a few heart-stopping moments, it's finally removed.

CHARLIE TEO: Here comes the tumour now.

PETER OVERTON: Another triumph for Charlie's groundbreaking procedure. But, despite its success, Australian surgeons just aren't using it. So, is it something about Charlie?

CHARLIE TEO: Yeah, it is, it is. I mean, yeah, it is, it's me, uh, in some ways. See that hurts too, because if it wasn't me, if it'd been some other neurosurgeon bringing keyhole surgery to Australia, maybe they would have had more luck. But, you know, it's, it's Charlie Teo I think that they don't like. They're not giving it a fair chance. So in some ways maybe I've done a disservice to Australian neurosurgery and that really hurts me.

PETER OVERTON: While Charlie's methods and style have made many enemies, even his staunchest critics couldn't question his dedication to fighting brain cancer. In typical Charlie fashion, he's started his own fund to find a cure. And he'll do whatever it takes to get the money coming in — even Bollywood dancing. You are hoping that brain cancer will not be known as a death sentence? It will have a cure?

CHARLIE TEO: Yes, that is the aim of the Cure For Life Foundation, to raise enough money where we do enough research, where, finally we find an answer, a cure for brain cancer.

PETER OVERTON: Nathan's operation is finally over. It's a success, the tumour has been removed. But, for his anxious family, the worry now is whether it's cancer.

CHARLIE TEO: Good to see you. Things have gone really well.

PETER OVERTON: Again, they're pinning their hopes on Charlie.

CHARLIE TEO: It doesn't look like cancer, I didn't think it was. It looks like it's a benign tumour.

DONNA BONNICI: That's so good.

CHARLIE TEO: That's good, eh? Thank you.

CHARLIE TEO: Pleasure. Pleasure. Hey, Nathan, Nathan. Hey Nathan.

NATHAN BONNICI: What? It's Charlie here, old son.


CHARLIE TEO: How are you going? Wiggle your toes for me? That's the boy. Hey, listen, we got all the tumour out, things went really well.


CHARLIE TEO: Okay, Nathan, you're a little bit groggy. How funny is that?

PETER OVERTON: For Nathan, it's been an emotional journey.

NATHAN BONNICI: I'd like to thank Mum and Dad for looking after me and the nurses for looking after me while I've been here and everyone else who's been looking after me and especially Charlie for doing a great job.

PETER OVERTON: It's been the best result possible. He'll fully recover. To him, Charlie's a life-saver.

NATHAN BONNICI: A legend. He's like a God. Those things they do — magnificent.

PETER OVERTON: Maverick or miracle worker? The medical community may be divided but for anyone with an inoperable brain tumour, Charlie Teo is the one man prepared to take the chance. Are you the best, Charlie?

CHARLIE TEO: Well, I think I'm the best. But, you know, you ask that to most neurosurgeons and most neurosurgeons would say, 'Oh, of course they're gonna say they're the best because if they didn't think they were the best and they were a caring doctor, they would send that patient to the best' So, yeah, I think I'm the best at brain tumours but that's just my, my opinion. I'm not saying it's gospel, I'm not saying that other people think so but, yeah, I think I'm really good at taking out brain tumours.

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