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What seeing death has taught Australian neurosurgeon Charlie Teo about the fragility of life.

Charlie Teo is well-known among Australia’s medical community.

He has operated on thousands of patients, many of whom his colleagues have deemed ‘inoperable.’ His patients have spoken in gushing tones of their relationship with the reputable surgeon, and a book was even written about his work in 2008: “Life in His Hands: The True Story of a Neurosurgeon and a Pianist.”

Comedian Anh Do sat down with Teo in his recent ABC series ‘Brush with Fame’ to find out what makes the surgeon tick, and one of the most revealing aspects of the episode was Teo’s relationship with his father, who was also a doctor but a ‘dropkick’.

“He wasn’t around much, he wasn’t the nicest person in the world. I guess if you have to be grounded, you need at least one parent who loves you unconditionally, that was my mum.” 

Teo also talked about the relentless racism he received as a schoolboy, reflecting that it made him resilient.

charlie teo anh do's brush with fame
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Charlie as a young boy. Image: supplied.

"It wasn't such a negative thing. I think it made me a little bit of who I am today. The racism was bad, there weren't that many Chinese people around."

Having one of the most intense jobs on the planet takes its toll. Teo's longest period on the operating table was 26 straight hours (with just one 10-minute toilet). But he says the effort is worth it. He's saved countless lives, and through his work is often reminded about how precarious life is.

"It's so fragile. Don't waste it. Don't waste it being angry at people, or joining ISIS," he says.

The burden of seeing so much death isn't easy. Imagine telling Teo about your day. 'Woke up from a neck cramp, had a giant row with my two-year-old son about cereal, and the neighbour's dog keep breaking into the backyard.'

Compare that to his? An eight-year-old girl who just died on the operating table. No comparison.

"The people who aren't reminded of the big picture every day, you have to deal with those people. I also expect other people to see the picture, and I think it's a bit unfair," he says.

Still, Teo sees his role as an honour.

"I've saved thousands of people. It's a great privilege."

Anh's Brush with Fame screens Wednesday 24 August at 8pm on ABC1 and on iview.

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