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Dr. Mark Bernstein

dr. mark bernstein

Role at the Centre

Home-care doctor 

Year started at the Centre


Shares a practice with

Dr. Paolo Mazzotta


There’s really very little need of an interviewer with Dr. Mark Bernstein in the room. He fills it with energy, and a passion for his life (and his job) that seems to rise up from the soles of his shoes. His rapid-fire delivery speaks to his desire to pack five minutes worth of life into every passing minute. 

He’s been a brain surgeon for thirty years. Which seems, to a layperson, almost diametrically opposite to the role of the palliative care physician. He doesn’t argue, accepts, in fact, that he’s a little atypical of his breed.

“I’ve had an exhilarating and rewarding career in neurosurgery for thirty years. But I’ve always been a little bit more touchy feely than the average surgeon. I did a Masters in Bioethics when I was fifty. I do a lot of international pro bono work capacity-building in Africa. I go a couple of times a year. And I also do qualitative research. So, these were all different things than the average surgeon does.”

He says the idea of palliative care had been percolating with him for about a decade before he finally took action. “I took this fellowship at the Temmy Latner Centre and I’m now one of the staff.”

I’m intrigued to hear how he’s coping. “I love both. I’m a brain tumour surgeon and I’m passionate about that but I’ve become very passionate about palliative care. And they’re very different. Even though a lot of my patients have brain cancer and the overlap with palliative care was strong, the whole approach is different. Neurosurgery is technicality oriented, disease oriented, cure oriented and this is the opposite of that. It’s sitting with a patient talking for an hour and a half in their living room, which is not part of my daily work as a neurosurgeon. I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s slowed me down a bit and it’s allowed me to express my touchy feely side even more than I had in the past.”

I wonder if this approach has fed back into his practice as a surgeon. “I’m trying to make it feed back,” he says. “I’m trying to slow down with patients. I’ve always been pretty nice with patients. They like me. It’s not like I walk in a room and say “you need an operation” and leave. I’m not one of those guys. But still, I think I’m spending more time with them, that I’m a little more interested in smaller complaints.”

“When you’re a brain surgeon and you do a twelve-hour operation to take out a benign brain tumour and you cure a patient, restore them to their full life, and they come back to you after two months and say “I’m not sleeping too well” the normal tendency is to say “oh, your MRI looks great Mr. Smith, see you in a year.” We don’t take those smaller complaints, which are huge to the patient, seriously. No surgeons do, and I’m doing better at that. So I think this work had definitely fed back to my neurosurgical practice.” 

Does he think it’s made a difference to the way he lives his life? His approach to life?

“That’s a tough one. I feel better about myself. I’ve always taken huge pride in my work as a neurosurgeon and as a doctor, and as other things: husband, father, carer of dogs and overseas worker etc.. But I think I’m a more whole person now than I was five years ago because of this. It’s such a privilege to do home-based palliative care, to go into people’s homes, to be welcomed, to sit with them in their living room and have a coffee and chat with them and hug them sometimes. I like people so it’s been an awesome experience. And the trust that I have for them and they have for me has really been a wonderful experience.”

His passion is palpable. It spills out of him, and it spills in all directions. Although he is technically dividing his time between palliative care and neurosurgery these days he’s still taking his regular load of surgery. “I don’t compartmentalize my time. The two worlds completely overlap.I just run both. I like the work. I have a life where the structure of compartmentalizing jobs isn’t very well developed. I just let everything meld together.”

He throws me an impish smile. “I should maybe take on a third job. Truck driving?”

We don’t even get to his love of dogs and of the saxophone (he claims to be the world’s second-worst saxophone player), because suddenly our time has run out and he has to hurry away, accompanied by his giant ball of energy.


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