Dr-Caroline-TanI was born in Melbourne and obtained my primary medical degree from the University of Melbourne in 1995. My formative years as a doctor were spent at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, where I was inspired to pursue a career in neurosurgery. In 1999, I enrolled in a PhD at the University of Melbourne and at the same time successfully applied to enter neurosurgical training. I spent three years at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and Peter MacCallum Cancer Institute on full-time laboratory-based genetic research into brain tumours, before going on to complete six years of clinical training in advanced neurosurgery at Royal Adelaide Hospital, Monash Medical Centre and the Royal Melbourne Hospital. The training was arduous and there were plenty of other hardships along the way but I never failed any of the examinations. In fact, I passed the final (exit) neurosurgery examination on my first attempt in 2007, even though the pass rate on that occasion was only 33%. I spent the better part of the following year on a Fellowship in Complex Spinal Surgery at the John Hunter Hospital in New South Wales. Later, I was employed as a consultant neurosurgeon at several more public hospitals in Australia and New Zealand, namely Royal Hobart Hospital, Townsville Hospital, Dunedin Hospital and Nepean Hospital.

I was supported during my research years by several highly competitive and prestigious scholarships by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, including the John Loewenthal Scholarship and the Surgeon Scientist Fellowship. Although I am not involved in research at present, I have maintained an academic interest in brain tumours and am one of the contributing authors in a 4-volume North American book series on tumours of the central nervous system. However, my academic interests are not confined to brain tumours and I am also the principal author of a chapter on cerebral blood flow 6th edition of the world-renowned Youmans Neurological Surgery textbook. In addition, I have been a reviewer for the Australasian Journal of Clinical Neuroscience for many years and am occasionally invited to review articles for other international journals.

To ensure that I am up-to-date with the latest advances in neurosurgery I regularly attend Australian and international neurosurgical conferences, symposia and workshops.

I am a senior clinical lecturer with the Deakin and Flinders University Medical Schools and was instrumental in a major overhaul of the neurosciences component of the Deakin medical course. I believe that all doctors have a responsibility to pass on their medical knowledge to the next generation so I am always looking for ways to increase my involvement in teaching.

It was my passion for neurosurgery which gave me the resilience to weather the most daunting professional challenges. I might well be biased, but what drew me to neurosurgery back in 1999, is that the practice of neurosurgery reigns above most, if not all other surgical specialties, in terms of the tremendous variety and complexity of the diseases encountered and the technical and intellectual challenges of treating them. Continuous evolution of neurosurgical techniques should allow neurosurgeons to meet those challenges ever more successfully in the future. Neurosurgery is not just about successfully treating neurological disease with the scalpel. The reality is that there are many diseases- even common ones like certain strokes and glioblastoma multiforme (one of the most malignant brain tumours)- that afflict the human nervous system and cannot be banished by surgery. These “incurable” diseases are more often than not revealed by sudden illness that threaten lives or the ability for independent living. In fact, I remember discussing choice of medical careers with my peers when I was a junior doctor and being told “neurosurgery is SO depressing”. I suppose it is, if you see medicine as purely an exercise in attacking a disease with pills, scalpels etc. To me, the practice of medicine is so much more than that. For me, it is also about getting to know each one of my patients as individuals. I value the privilege of the doctor-patient relationship and the act of bringing comfort to all patients, by striving to understand what each one is going through, communicating effectively with them and supporting them as best as possible with my knowledge and skills.

When I meet a new patient, I want to hear all about what is troubling them, how it is impacting on their life, work and recreational pursuits, as well as what their expectations of treatment are. Now, sometimes those expectations are out of kilter with what is possible or necessary and then I need to provide the information necessary to adjust those expectations. Doing all of this can take quite a bit of time. It is time that I hear (from patients) that many busy surgeons do not provide but most people are looking for.