Dr Charlie Teo's birth story

Dr Charlie Teo is a neurosurgeon specialising in paediatrics. After twelve years of education and specialist training, Charlie and his wife Genevieve, a nurse, left Australia for a 10-year stint in the US where they had three of their four daughters. When their eldest child came home from school after ‘gunshot drill training’ they decided it was time to head home to Australia. Charlie is a director of the Centre for Minimally Invasive Neurosurgery and a founding director of the Charlie Teo Foundation, an organisation funding research into treatment for brain cancer, the number one cancer killer in children. He is a pioneer in neuro-endoscopy techniques and continues to train surgeons all over the world. Charlie has copped criticism from some of his peers for breaking with the conservative image of neurosurgeons by playing the bagpipes, riding a motorcycle, wearing Hawaiian shirts and for courting the media. For the record, it took three months of asking before he agreed to this interview. On the other hand, Charlie is wholeheartedly adored by his patients, many of whom have little hope until Dr Teo is willing to operate. He spends four months a year giving his services to patients in developing countries and has been nominated for the Australian of the Year Award many times. He believes that childbirth is the most natural event on earth that shouldn’t be interfered with or coached. He also found the change in the status quo after the birth of his first child to be quite a shock. 

We hadn’t planned on having a large family; in fact, I had been quite vocal that I would only ever have two children in order to be socially and environmentally responsible. I felt it was irresponsible from a population viewpoint to have lots of kids. However, I just loved having children so much and I really wanted a boy so I kept thinking we would have just one more shot at a son. By the time we had three girls – I just loved having three kids as opposed to two – I thought, bugger it, let’s try one more time – and she’s a girl too! There’s no difference really between having three and four kids, in fact four is a little easier because your eldest can help to nurture the fourth child.


I was a bad boy when I was young, a bit of a womaniser. I never treated women badly, I have great respect for women, but I had a lot of girlfriends. I think having four daughters was my due return.

Our first baby was born in the States. I thought I would do what I was expected to do, that is, be the nurturing, caring husband. I went to the antenatal classes, but was kicked out after the first one. I’m a bit of a philistine and I’m not into all that touchy-feely sort of stuff. There were all these breathing exercises and I thought it was all pretty humorous and laughed. Genevieve said, ‘Fine, don’t come back again!’


When we got to the birth I decided that all that coached breathing is crap! Birth is such a natural phenomena, I think it’s wrong to try to teach someone what comes naturally.


When I went through med school, we had a year of tutoring in ‘personality’: interviewing skills, empathy, warmth and compassion. I don’t think you can teach that. We’d have to do role-plays and they would try to teach us the best verbal response to a patient. I’d sit back from these tutorials and think, ‘That poor bastard over there has no social skills whatsoever and here he is repeating these sentences like a robot.’


I thought childbirth was the same. Here they were trying to teach Genevieve to do something that should come naturally to her. They were also trying to tell me how to behave and respond to things in just the right way and I thought that was unnatural. I didn’t go to any more antenatal classes and I’m so glad she let me off the hook.


Being Mr Au Naturel, I didn’t want Genevieve to have an epidural or anything unnatural. I couldn’t appreciate the pain that women go through or the joys of modern medicine in the field of obstetrics but I wanted her to give birth naturally and she respected that and went all natural for about 12 hours. She eventually had an epidural. Genevieve doesn’t regret having an epidural, but she held it against me for making her hold off for so long. 


Genevieve was quite abusive to me in labour! I remember lying in bed with her trying to be Mr Touchy Feely and rubbing her back when she snapped, ‘You smell!’ I’d been sitting there for twelve hours so maybe I did. I just sucked it up, tolerated the abuse and did my best. ‘Don’t touch me!’ she said at one point.


After she had the epidural I played the doctor role rather than the father role and I’m glad I did. She became hypotensive after the epidural and her blood pressure dropped to something like 50 on 20, which is very low. You’re meant to give fluids when this happens and there was no one around so I pumped the fluids into her. After that I felt like I had a purpose and I was needed. I’d done my bit so that was good. 


When the baby was coming out, I didn’t go down that end. As a medical student I had seen it. You’ve got this huge big vagina staring at you, with the head coming out and fluid everywhere. The mother is red and sweaty. It’s just an ugly sight and I didn’t want to see that with my wife. So I stayed up the top end.


The obstetrician tried to get me to play the father role again and have me cut the cord but I didn’t want to, as I saw that as her job. There’s this dictum in medicine that says that if you operate on or deal with a doctor or a doctor’s family, things are going to go wrong. I think that’s because you might treat a doctor a little differently as a patient and not do what you would normally do. So I wanted to make it very clear to that doctor that I didn’t want her to do anything differently from her usual routine.


When I operate on doctors and their families, I appreciate it when they don’t try to be a doctor. I need to treat them like a layperson and talk to them like a layperson, like I treat everyone else. I’m pleased to say that by adopting that philosophy with my own doctor-patients, I haven’t had the misfortune of having many complications with those patients.


Then the baby came and it was a great moment. Suddenly Genevieve’s nasty streak turned nice and she was smiley and happy! She was like Jekyll and Hyde. She’d been yelling and swearing at me and now she was all smiles.


At one point I had tried to use a little of the breathing technique I remembered from that one and only class and she said, ‘Just get lost! I can’t do it!’ That confirmed for me that those eight weeks of breathing classes were a total waste of time.


I recall being pleased when the placenta came out because I know what happens if the placenta is retained. Delivery of the placenta was like an afterthought or anticlimax really. From a medical point of view I was pleased when that happened and I was watching out for it but from an emotional father’s point of view it didn’t mean anything.


Alex was a delightful baby. I was born to be a father. I have always loved kids, which is why I did paediatric neurosurgery. I can remember when I was a young fella preferring to play with kids and little babies rather than playing macho games. I knew I would love my own kids.


Becoming a father completely changed my response to my patients and their families. It’s just terrible when I treat a child exactly the same age as my own, with the same little expressions and attitude. It’s very hard to separate the emotion from the science of it all.


By the time Nikky, our second, was born, I considered myself a bit of a veteran in the childbirth stakes. I was doing my ward rounds and thought I would just wait until the time arrived and Genevieve needed me. Again, I wasn’t too touchy-feely and wasn’t too supportive of Genevieve, nor did she demand it, although she was a little embarrassed by the fact that she couldn’t say that her husband was by her side.


I think I was even operating while she was in labour and they called me when they said she was about to deliver. I was a fellow then, not the main surgeon, so I broke off from the operating room and went to be with her.


For our third daughter, I sat with Genevieve the whole time because she had been a bit upset about my absence for most of the second birth. But I was on the phone to Italy a lot, organising a neurosurgery conference and after a while she said, ‘Go then, go! You’re no help – just get out!’ So I did get out of there and I came back for the important part at the end.


All the expats in Little Rock, Arkansas stuck together and Genevieve’s friend, another expat, was in labour at exactly the same time so they kept each other company.


The last labour was very quick with no time for an epidural, funny gas or any intervention at all. Just two contractions and the baby popped out.


I wanted to write a book after our second child was born, so guys could read about what to expect at this time in their lives. I wanted to tell guys that they have got to expect to have no attention from their partner, before, during and after the birth. There’s no sex, nurturing or pampering from your partner. 


Men are real wusses, they’re like babies and you need to pamper them, care for them and stroke their ego. Then a baby comes along and you take second place. So as a father you have to somehow get it in your mind that this is the natural process. You have to stop putting yourself as number one, stop getting upset about it and not seek the attention from somewhere else.

Guys need sex, several times a week. We just need it. It’s not just sex though, it’s intimacy and attention from your partner. You don’t get any of that when a baby comes along. It would have helped me to know what I was in for and that others had been through it before me. Had I known that there was a light at the end of the tunnel, that this wasn’t permanent, it would have been easier for me to adjust. 


I wish I had known to expect ‘pregnant brain syndrome’ where women just can’t think the way they used to. It’s caused by sleep deprivation as well as a micro-embolism caused by the birth. This is a documented neurological outcome where something such as air, placental juices, fats or blood clots can get into the blood system and lodge in the brain to form a microinfarct or mini stroke. It’s a real, physiological, neurological syndrome. Husbands need to be warned that their wife won’t be thinking straight. She’ll be very emotional and guys just have to suck it up, expect it and get on with it.


I believe that you have to train your children or modify their behaviour so that they are pleasant little people to be with and you enjoy their company. Genevieve and I have different standards when it comes to behaviour. For example, I let them swear because I swear like a trooper, but Genevieve doesn’t tolerate it. This isn’t a source of acrimony between us; the kids know our individual limits.

When I have time off from work I just crave to be with my children and so does Genevieve. I can’t wait to be with them. We have four beautiful daughters and I love them very much.

Copyright Lucy Bloom. This story first appeared in Cheers to Childbirth, the first edition. Pure Publishing 2010.

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