Know Your Heroes: Dr. Mark Bernstein

Name: Dr. Mark Bernstein
Title: Neurosurgeon
Number of years working in health care: 45
I was born and raised in: Ottawa

I decided to get into health care because I had a strong to desire to do a job that was in direct service of others, and health care seemed the most immediate way to help people. I just wanted to help others in need. My initial plan was to be a research physicist but during my BSc I “saw the light.”

My role here at UHN is to help people with neurosurgical problems, in my case particularly brain tumours, which has been my main area of focus during my entire career. I also served as Head of our Division for 10 years. I have also been interested in clinical outcomes research and developing novel resource utilization and specifically outpatient craniotomy for removal of brain tumours (a patient gets her/his brain tumour removed and goes home the same day).

The thing I love the most about my job is being able to be there for someone at a most vulnerable and dangerous time in their life journey, and having the special skills to help them fix their problem. I also love interacting with the team – nurses, other doctors, and of course training residents and fellows – to be future neurosurgeons. I also love the “romanticism” of rushing down to the hospital in the middle of the night to help someone I have never met out of a neurosurgical emergency (like a brain hemorrhage).

The most incredible thing I’ve seen at work is the courage and humanity of my patients. People at a terrible time in their lives are so consistently brave which gives me some extra faith in the human race. This has constantly amazed and comforted me every day.

I’m inspired by patients because of their bravery and humanity. I’m also inspired by all the men and women who have devoted their lives to the medical helping of others. I feel a kinship with all health care workers, which includes the personal support workers and the janitors who are unsung heroes of the health care team.

One of my personal heroes is Mahatma Ghandi and all the other underdogs who rose up from impoverished beginnings to make a difference. These people give me faith in human beings when we live in a time when we all must question how humane human beings are.

I sometimes worry about doing the wrong thing for a patient – technical things like performing an imperfect operation, or making a judgement error like not operating when I should. This has haunted me from my very first day in practice and will never stop. Perhaps it’s what keeps a surgeon sharp and careful.

I’ve found joy recently from doing a second job of home palliative care which I have done since 2016. This in a way is at the opposite end of the medical spectrum from neurosurgery – it is not cure-based, it is not technology- and technicality-based. It is based around spending time listening to patients and their families, and eventually helping someone have a dignified and comfortable death, preferably at home.

My favourite book is Of Human Bondage because it is about an underdog who survives and succeeds. I have always been drawn to help less privileged people (underdogs), which accounts for my 30 or so trips to the developing world (mostly sub-Saharan Africa) to teach and build capacity of local neurosurgeons to help their patients.

My ideal day off is being at the cottage with my dogs, maybe fishing, or maybe just doing yard work, or every Sunday when my wife and I and our three daughters and their partners and children congregate at our home.

Did you know you can recognize a UHN staff member through our Honour Your Hero program? Express gratitude for the care you or a loved one received and share a personal message of thanks with the people who supported you throughout your care journey. Your gift will supported research, education and the enhancement of patient care right here at UHN.

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