Before the program started, doctors reiterated this was to raise awareness about different types of procedures. On air, host Bryant Gumbel made two points up front: First, this would not be a “gorefest.” Second, he wanted everyone to measure expectations. “No, we are not going to be defining success in life or death terms tonight,” Gumbel said. “But only in terms of how effectively the surgery impacts the many years that Mr. Grindley will still have ahead of him after the surgery has been completed.”
So, what’s it like to watch brain surgery on live TV? Or, as Gumbel kept calling it, a “celebration of the brain”? Here are the highlights if you missed the telecast, which took place at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.
1) You actually don’t see that much brain surgery!
Apparently it’s not super helpful to have tons of cameras around while doctors are trying to perform a six-hour surgical procedure. (Called deep brain stimulation, this operation has been around for about 13 years, doctors said, and serves to reduce symptoms to improve quality of life for people who suffer from tremors.) Gumbel also made a point to say that the production would definitely not impede the medical process, as there was only a small crew in the operating room. While Gumbel frequently checked in to chat with the doctors about the progress, viewers only saw a couple up-close shots of the actual brain. Mostly, the camera’s view was Grindley on the operating table, as you saw several doctors behind his head.
2) Things got personal.
The producers spent lots of time on Grindley’s story. A Navy veteran, he was also an electrical engineer and avid motorcycle rider before he started feeling “twitches” in his arm about a decade ago. His doctor diagnosed him with Parkinson’s disease and he’s suffered from severe tremors ever since. He can’t even walk without a cane, though the producers showed footage of him walking his daughter down the aisle at her wedding. Grindley’s wife, brother, kids and friends all sat in the waiting room downstairs, and Gumbel frequently interviewed the nervous group. Grindley’s wife, Crystal, married him after he was diagnosed.
“The man who walks out of the hospital might be different than the guy you married!” Gumbel enthused at one point. Crystal assured him that she didn’t think Parkinson’s changed her husband’s personality one way or another.
3) It’s like any reality special — there’s lots of padding.
Just watching doctors work can’t sustain an audience for two hours, so Gumbel had plenty of scientific experts on hand to answer questions about the surgery and the brain in general. To make it relatable to the audience, the show had viewers send in questions for doctors via Twitter, and Gumbel provided fun random facts about the brain. Sample: “Ever been in the shower when suddenly you’re hit by a great idea? Well, turns out that may not be just a coincidence. Seems when you’re doing something monotonous like showering, your mind can flip to autopilot activating different parts of your brain,” he explained.
4) There were terrifying science facts.
To fill some time, Gumbel asked the doctors about some of the risks of this surgery. Rahul Jandial, a neurosurgeon and scientist from Los Angeles who provided commentary for most of the show, explained the scary truth: While performing this surgery, doctors have to hit the tiny cluster of cells exactly with no room for error. “If you’re a little to the left, a little to the right, it can affect how your eyes move and how your face moves,” he explained.
Something else to give you nightmares, according to the experts: Thousands of years ago, people used to experiment with brain surgery (read: drill holes in people’s brains) to release evil spirits or fix someone’s terrible personality.
5) They tried to amp up the drama at the end.
Grindley was awake for the surgery so he could communicate with the doctors about what was working, but like any reality show, the “big reveal” came at the very end — could the surgery stop Grindley’s tremors? When one doctor turned on the equipment, Grindley’s hand suddenly stopped shaking. It worked! His family was visibly emotional and Gumbel milked the moment. He reiterated multiple times it was the first time in 10 years that Grindley was tremor-free.
“Does he realize how close he is to getting back on the motorcycle?!” Gumbel asked. When doctors handed Grindley an iPad, Gumbel said “Please tell me you’re sending a note to Crystal!” Grindley did, but there was bad cell reception in the hospital, so Crystal didn’t get the message in time to read on air. Gumbel was visibly disappointed.
Though viewers did see Grindley’s tremors briefly stop during the surgery, neurosurgeon Jonathan Miller wanted to make one thing clear to viewers: “Nobody is being cured tonight … this is alleviating some of the problems that stem from Parkinson’s,” he said, adding there’s a long way to go for a cure. “In brain surgery, we never cure anybody. All we ever do is set the stage for the brain to cure itself.”