He was readmitted to a different hospital closer to home and doctors soon diagnosed the 47-year-old with stage 4 glioblastoma, a malignant form of brain cancer.
“It’s the worst you can get,” Mrs Nation, 50, told news.com.au. “The doctor said ‘it’s in his brain stem and it’s inoperable, he’s got eight weeks to live’.”
Mrs Nation started Googling “glioblastomas survivors” and read about a young girl from Euroa, Victoria who had survived a benign brain tumour, even after doctors told her it was inoperable. Her surgeon was Charlie Teo.
The 58-year-old neurosurgeon is famous for operating on brain tumours that other surgeons consider inoperable or too high risk. His patients come from all over the world to visit his neurology centre at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney.
His radical approach has drawn criticism from some in the surgical profession, who argue he is a “cowboy” who offers “false hope” to dying patients, and many doctors will refuse to refer their patients onto Dr Teo.
Mrs Nation booked an appointment with Dr Teo, but it was six weeks away. She asked her husband’s surgeon at The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne for a formal referral.
“He laughed and he flat out said no,” she said. “His mouth turned up and he said, ‘I’m not even going to bother with that man. I won’t give you a referral’. He just had this look about him as if to say, ‘Oh, not another one’.”
Mrs Nation demanded access to all of her husband’s medical files, scans and reports.
“I gathered everything and wrote a very soppy card to Charlie and said ‘please look at this’. If there is absolutely nothing we can do, please let me know. I knew he was my only option.”
She got a call from one of Dr Teo’s associates on a Wednesday, and on the following Monday Mr Nation was lying on Dr Teo’s operating table at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney.
“Charlie was awesome. He said, ‘OK James. This is a deadly disease. You will die from it. But I feel confident that I could make a difference and buy you time’. He was very upfront,” Mrs Nation said.
“He said, ‘I’ll tell you now that 70 per cent of my patients come through, but 30 per cent are left paralysed. You need to make a decision. It’s a very risky operation. So it’s totally your call James’. And James said he wanted him to have a crack.”
Dr Teo removed 95 per cent of the tumour in Mr Nation’s brain. Following a seven-hour operation, he pulled through without any paralysis.
After originally being given eight weeks to live, he is still alive seven months later.
Mrs Nation’s account of medical professionals who refuse to refer their patients onto Dr Teo echoes the neurosurgeon’s own claims earlier this week that doctors are letting their egos get in the way and are putting patient’s lives at risk.
In an interview with as part of his ongoing campaign against the culture of bullying and harassment in Australia’s surgical profession. on Wednesday,
He said the hospital is refusing to let him operate on an 18-month-old child who is dying from a brain tumour.
News.com.au spoke to dozens of Dr Teo’s patients who say their doctors discouraged them from seeking treatment from the popular brain surgeon.
Other friends and relatives have expressed their anger and sadness for patients who have been paralysed or died after Dr Teo operated on them.
Critics have labelled Dr Teo a “narcissistic egomaniac” and a “sociopath” who charges exorbitant fees — up to $80,000 — for procedures in his private practice.
Kelly Barry, 38, from Adelaide, was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 27 and given six months to live. Her doctors told her the tumour was inoperable.
“The tumour in her brain was as big as an apple,” her father George told news.com.au.
“It got to the stage where she couldn’t string words together properly and her vision was impaired so she was running into doors all the time.”
When Mrs Barry asked to be referred to Dr Teo, her doctor said: “You’re wasting your time going to see that man. Nothing can be done.”
Mr Barry said: “The doctor walked around the room like a zombie and said ‘This is how your daughter is going to come out of surgery after seeing that cowboy’.”
The family eventually got in touch with Dr Teo who successfully removed the tumour. Mr Barry believes Dr Teo’s treatment from other surgeons comes down to “total jealousy”.
“He can do things that they can’t do. I would put my faith in Charlie for anything. He’s the most humane person I’ve ever come across.”
Mrs Nation says most surgeons want to ensure their “success rate” remains high. Taking on risky procedures with a high chance of death puts that in jeopardy. “They’re all concerned about their stats. It’s all about being able to say they have a 95 per cent success rate. They don’t want to take on cases that could lower that.
“It’s like they’re saying, ‘If we don’t have a guaranteed successful outcome, don’t try’. “How dare they not give me and my family the chance? Our children have spent an extra birthday each with James. We’ve had Christmas, Father’s Day, our anniversary and Valentine’s Day.
“How many patients have to die because these egos are not put aside? They don’t want to operate on someone and then fail. These men and women have these huge egos that are not in the best interest of their patient.”
Dr John Quinn, the head of the The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons surgical division, says surgeons have the right to refuse treatment if they believe it could harm the patient or if it goes against their moral judgment.
“While patients have the ability to refuse treatments, surgeons also have the ability to refuse to treat,” Dr Quinn said.
“Patients often want things done that are going to harm them and the surgeon will not operate if they think the operation is going to be futile.”
Dr Quinn says disagreements between surgeons about the decision to operate are uncommon, but do happen “from time to time”.
“Not everyone is going to agree with everybody. The patient is free to seek out a second opinion if they’re not happy with the advice. Sometimes patients choose not to have the treatment that’s recommended by surgeons for whatever reason, and that’s fine.”
Dr Quinn acknowledged the medical industry does have a bullying problem, particularly between “those in power and those with less power”.
“We’re trying to get rid of that and we’re trying to change our culture, but it’s a very difficult thing to do.”