As we bid a fond farewell to our departing Head of School Professor Richard Canter, we take a brief stroll down memory lane in a final question and answer session.
Q: Tell us a little about your background.
As some trainees will know, I was expelled from school. So a bad start can be turned around. That’s probably enough.
Q: What made you want to be a surgeon? And why ENT specifically?
I realised that learning in surgery is a lifelong experience when I watched senior surgeons struggling in theatre. There’s no chance of getting bored.
I was on my way to do plastics and it was recommended that I spent six months in ENT surgery. I realised for the first time that it was a vast specialty and trained as a head and neck surgeon, although switched to reconstructive ear surgeon when the department subspecialised.
Q: How has a career in surgery changed since you were a trainee?
Interesting question. The basic job has not changed. What I do notice is how deserted hospitals are compared to my day. Then we were doing one in two on-calls so this meant there were large numbers of people simply covering wards or in the hospital mess. This meant there was always plenty of expertise immediately available if you were stuck. It is much more difficult to obtain help and advice and I recognise that surgical trainees do a job that is more difficult than it was in my day for this reason.
Q: You’ve had an incredibly successful reign as the Head of the Severn School of Surgery. What do you consider to be your greatest achievements?
I don’t feel I’ve had an incredibly successful time as Head of School because I am conscious of the many things I haven’t been able to do. I’m very pleased about two things: First of all, discovering that consultants, if given the space and opportunity to develop programmes, are immensely productive. And many tell me that they really feel they can make a difference in education in a way they find so difficult in trying to improve service. Perhaps the greatest discovery was finding that surgical trainees, given half a chance, can produce some amazing outputs. I’m thinking here of the spectacular number of skills courses that trainees have developed. The awkward thing here is that I really cannot claim any credit, and I do mean this, because it’s the work of Rob Longman, Steve Mitchell, Alice Roberts, the whole orthopaedic department, as well as many other contributors which supports my first point.
This is not what you would call an “achievement,” but I think we have moved some way towards a family friendly surgical training scheme. To my surprise, I was at a national meeting two months ago in Oxford and a trainee came up to me and she said, “You have a programme in Severn which is increasingly recognised nationally as being family friendly.” She said that’s why she was applying to our programme. In a world where 55% of medical graduates are women, we have to do something to make sure that capable female trainees can complete surgical training without surrendering their wish to raise a family.
Q: Greatest achievements outside that role?
To my surprise, I’ve been able to develop myself and my career in a way that has been very enjoyable. This has meant that as I leave I’m looking forward to expanding my role at Oxford and continue to try to make a small difference. My wife would say that holding the marriage together in a busy job is the greatest achievement.
Q: Any favourite stories/memories from your time as Head of School?
There are lots of moments. Residential days with the programme directors and college tutors where we worked hard but it was fun. The school conferences and dinners. Welcoming new trainees to the programme. And seeing some spectacular successes and appointments. We have graduates at the Mayo Clinic, MD Anderson, Toronto General, Vancouver, Auckland, Sidney, to name a few, as well as many major centres in the UK. But my favourite story is leaving the School of Surgery dinner and turning back to see the medical director of the BRI sharing stories with a whole group of surgical trainees.
Q: You are famously diplomatic, personable and well-spoken. Have you ever considered a career in politics (though there’s certainly a lot of that in the NHS!)?
(Laughs) No, I have never considered a career in politics. I don’t have a face that’s easy enough on the eyes for politics.
Q: I’ll never forget the time at a board meeting you said, “I’d like to make five points about that” and then immediately went into five well thought out points, eloquently spoken with no “ums” and “uhs”. It was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen; the kind of thing people talk about Bill Clinton being able to do.
I’m not aware of this at all. But I am aware that the more senior your role in an organisation, the simpler it becomes. You just have to keep your focus on some quite basic ideas. Maybe that’s what you noticed.
Q: I’ve heard you’re quite an accomplished musician and a great lover of jazz?
Yes, I love music. I played the piano all my life and still do. I’ve taken up the trumpet again and am about to join Bath Spa University Big Band. I have noticed that if I practice a lot I have a sense of being able to think more clearly. I may be kidding myself but it gives me an excuse to do it.
Q: You’ve been a mentor to so many surgical trainees over the years. Any advice for trainees trying to stand out in an extremely competitive programme?
Well, I’m careful about giving generic advice. If you really want to be a surgeon, it’s yours for the taking because you’ve already passed the initial test of getting into medical school. You proved you have the intellectual horsepower that you need, but you need the energy to get there. As Churchill said, “Success is going from failure to failure without losing your sense of enthusiasm.” Bruce Keogh told me that he applied to 14 medical schools before he got into medicine and look what happened to him!
Q: Your Leadership & Management courses have been extremely popular. Are you planning on doing any more of those?
Yes, I would like to. I’ve found it extraordinarily helpful in gaining insights into the everyday difficulties trainees encounter. I thought I had a good understanding of life as a trainee and believed that trainees would comfortably raise issues with me, but listening to their stories has made me realise that there is much happening to them that I’d failed to appreciate.
Q: So, what’s next for Professor Richard Canter?
For some years now, Sir Muir Gray and myself have wanted to work together and we started to do that this year. He is one of the most enlightened and interesting people I have ever met and I’m very much looking forward to collaborating with him on a major piece of work this year.
Q: Any parting words for the consultants, trainees and staff of the Severn School of Surgery?
If I’m honest, I will miss a large number of delightful colleagues and trainees. And thank you for the interview. It’s made me realise what fun it was. Thanks, Chad.
Maybe I won't miss you that much!