London – Ruthlessness, emotional detachment and fearlessness are traits more usually associated with psychopaths.
But the best doctors also need the same "attributes", a leading cardiac surgeon has revealed. Professor Stephen Westaby, 71, said it helped him undertake a pioneering operation that saved a baby girl’s life.
He developed an appetite for risk following a rugby accident as a medical student that left him with a fractured skull.
Prof Westaby told the Cheltenham Literature Festival: "When they shipped me back to medical school they could immediately tell that I was different to the shy and retiring person I’d been before.
"I didn’t register fear and that became significant in my medical career.
"I changed and I enjoyed the change. I could cope with anything in terms of the misery you face when you first start in heart surgery. When I first went to the Royal Brompton [in London] in 1974 operating on the children, one in four died.
"I think we are talking about selected tendencies that represent psychopathy."
The surgeon, from the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, told the audience how his ability to take calculated risks helped save the life of a baby. Prof Westaby removed a third of five-month-old Kirsty Collier’s heart and replaced an artery in a pioneering double operation.
He recalled how the procedure went ahead despite colleagues advising him to give up. Prof Westaby said: "I have to say that to do two new operations and film them, you need to be a psychopath.
"You have to be on the edge, but you have to take a chance."
Collier is now a healthy 21-year-old. Fellow heart surgeon Samer Nashef, who has practised at Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, added: "You do need slightly psychopathic [surgeons], who have the ability to deal with the unexpected crisis."
Nashef also revealed how he accidentally set an elderly heart bypass patient on fire on the operating table. Flammable surgical solution got too close to an electric cauterising device and ignited near the groin. He said: "The patient did absolutely fine but was rather bemused to find he’d had a full Brazilian."