‘Surgery tomorrow or she accepts death’: Family recalls Charlie Teo’s warning

“There’s no such thing as false hope, only false promises,” said the controversial neurosurgeon Charlie Teo last week.

“It’s incumbent on a surgeon or a doctor not to give false promises, so that people can either cling on to hope or let go of hope. It’s up to them, as long as you inform them properly,” he told a podcast.

Controversial neurosurgeon Dr Charlie Teo.Credit:Quentin Jones

However, a joint investigation by The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and 60 Minutes has raised serious concerns from a number of patients about the decisions they made based on the hope they claim Teo offered them.

Meiry Huang cries as she recalls the desperate conversation with her sisters and mother outside Teo’s Sydney office on August 8, 2017.

“She either has surgery tomorrow or she accepts death. Talk to her outside,” Meiry later told the Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC) about the conclusion of their consultation with Teo.

Her 79-year-old mother Erny Djie was exhausted having come straight to Teo’s office from the airport after an overnight flight from Singapore. Doctors there had told her she had an inoperable tumour.

Teo told them urgent surgery was necessary because Erny had possibly only weeks to live and as he was going to the United States, it could only be done the following day.

Meiry and Claudia, two of Erny’s five daughters, live in Australia. Having heard of Teo’s legendary skills, they’d flown their mother to Sydney for a second opinion about the operability of her brain tumour.

The sisters recall Teo opened the consultation saying the family had done the right thing in coming to see him. While he respected the advice of the Singapore neurosurgeon, Teo told them his “risk to benefit ratio” was far better than other surgeons.

“We paid him for her indescribable pain and suffering.”

Erny, who couldn’t speak English, was tired and stressed but her daughters said she kept smiling and trying to communicate her concerns.

The two sisters said that the brain surgeon did tell them that there were serious risks with the surgery but he was confident it would be successful.

As Meiry was talking to her mother in Chinese, Teo interjected several times, saying, “I’m the best … nobody’s better in the world, no one.”

After telling them their mother “either has surgery tomorrow or she accepts death,” the family went out into the corridor to try to take in this shocking news.

The family had come for a second opinion not expecting to be told that their mother was about to die and surgery had to be done the next day if they wanted to save her. But as they told this masthead, it wasn’t just anybody giving them this hope, it was the celebrated “miracle worker” Teo.

However, the outcome of their mother’s surgery was dire and her daughters are plagued by guilt and anguish at their part in believing in the hope Teo sold them.

Despite Teo telling them the operation was a success and he’d removed 95 per cent of the tumour, Erny was paralysed down one side. She couldn’t eat, drink, sit up or stand and she could no longer communicate properly.

“Half of her body was dead, basically,” Claudia said.

Having paid around $100,000 for the operation, which included $40,000 for Teo personally plus a $1275 administration fee and private hospital costs, Erny’s post-operative complications and rehab left the family out of pocket another $150,000.

The family flew their mother back to her home in Jakarta where she died on 10 November 2017.

“My mother lived the last 94 days of her life in a state of complete misery … a living hell,” said Meiry in her complaint to the HCCC. “I believe he vastly downplayed the risks of the operation” and took no interest in her mother post-operatively, she wrote.

Meiry told the HCCC she and her sisters were willing to pay Teo “whatever he asked” because of the quality of life “he assured us my mother would have”.

“Instead, we paid him for her indescribable pain and suffering,” she said.

For his part, Teo denied downplaying the risks or pressuring Erny Djie into a hasty decision regarding her surgery. He also told the HCCC the complaint “is at odds with his usual practices and his own recollections”. Teo also denied the sisters’ claim that their mother was given a choice of surgery the next day or death. He also denied claiming he was “the best”.

Teo did accept that he said, his “minimally invasive surgery” provided a different risk/benefit ratio compared to what was offered by most neurosurgeons.

One of the reasons he gave to the HCCC for proceeding with the surgery was: “While the extent of resection was somewhat controversial, at the time of surgery it was felt that a radical gross total resection (GTR) was necessary to make a statistical difference to survival.”

The HCCC found that the complaint did suggest problems with Teo’s obtaining “informed consent” for surgery.

However, the Djie family is furious that all that happened was the HCCC wrote to Teo to remind him of his “ethical obligation” to provide patients with sufficient knowledge and understanding of the risks and benefits of his surgery to enable them to make an informed decision.

Teo has also previously expressed resentment when he’s been criticised for taking risks on surgery deemed inoperable by others.

“I resent because all patients have the right to choose themselves … what risks they’re willing to take,” he said.

Corridor consult

Rebecca Anderson was stunned when she was fired as a patient for trying to talk to Teo about the risks she was willing to take.

In 2009 Anderson was diagnosed with a brain tumour. While benign, its location meant that it was a difficult surgery.

Rebecca Anderson, who was ‘cancelled’ as a patient by Charlie Teo, and her sister Ilana Lamont.Credit:60 Minutes

As a nurse at the same hospital, Anderson’s first port of call was the renowned neurosurgeon. She was taken aback while he shelled and ate peanuts during her consultation.

Given Teo’s reputation as an aggressive surgeon she wanted to talk to him about the extent of the risks she was prepared to take.

Anderson said she asked him not to be aggressive in surgery as her tumour was slow growing and not malignant. “I want you to remember who I am. I’m a wife, I’m a mother and I’m a nurse, and I have children,” she told him.

Teo replied, “Well, that’s not my style, but I’ll try.”

Anderson grew anxious as her surgery approached and wanted to discuss her fears. She rang Teo’s office several times, and although she was told Teo would get back to her, he never did.

When Anderson ran into Teo in the hospital corridor, she was appalled by his response when she said she just wanted to talk about the risks she was prepared to take but she hadn’t been able to get onto him.

“I don’t speak to anyone, why should I speak to you? You’re nothing special.” He then told her she had “bad karma” and he was cancelling her surgery.

“Dr Teo strode down the corridor yelling over his shoulder, ‘Cancelled. Surgery’s cancelled’, and that was the last I heard from him,” Anderson said.

“I was absolutely devastated. I was in floods of tears.” Anderson’s husband Michael complained to Prince of Wales Private Hospital and Teo and received what they describe as a “sorry/not sorry” letter from Teo.

Having said he had “unfortunately” had to agree with the complaint about his behaviour, he then said “if a surgeon finds a patient (sic) behaviour concerning he has every right to reject the patient both morally and legally.”

He then went on to blame Rebecca for the situation turning “acrimonious” when she tried to speak to him in the corridor.

Left or right?

For another patient, her blood runs cold when she hears Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart. It was the song playing as she was being wheeled into the operating theatre for brain surgery.

Charlie Teo settled a claim from Michelle Smith for operating on the wrong side of her brain.Credit:Wolter Peeters

In 2003 Teo operated on Michelle Smith at Prince of Wales Private Hospital to remove a tumour that was causing her epileptic seizures. Twelve weeks after surgery she had a follow-up appointment.

Showing the scans, Teo explained that he had removed some of the tumour but a second operation would be needed to remove the rest. “Everything’s great. You can stop all your meds,” Smith recalled him saying.

She followed his advice but over the years her seizures got worse and she couldn’t hold down a job let alone drive a car.

Michelle Smith’s 2014 brain scan. The red circles indicate the location of the brain tumour, while the green shows where Dr Charlie Teo operated.

In 2014 she had a near fatal car accident. “I had a seizure behind the wheel and hit two parked cars, writing off three cars,” Smith said. After the accident a fresh brain scan showed none of the tumour had been taken out and that Teo had actually operated on the wrong side of her brain.

Thirteen years after the initial surgery, Michelle had another operation to remove the tumour. This time a neurosurgeon at a Sydney public hospital operated at no charge and since then Smith has been seizure-free and feels like she’s been given a new life. But Dr Teo’s mistake still distresses her.

She felt Teo’s failed surgery, compounded by his failure to own up to his mistake, had stolen the best years of her life.

When told Teo had denied that he’d operated on the wrong side of her brain, Smith replied: “The scans don’t lie. It’s all there. Maybe he needs to look at them again.”

In 2018 she sued Teo for medical negligence and obtained a confidential settlement.

Smith said: “I did have a few people ask me why I would even waste my time trying to take on Charlie Teo because he’s untouchable.”

So why did Michelle do it? “Because no one’s untouchable,” she said.

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