TV review: Baby Surgeons: Delivering Miracles

Benjie Goodhart / 22 April 2021

Baby Surgeons: Delivering Miracles is a superbly-made documentary looking at the astonishing work of fetal doctors across the country, and Saved by a Stranger looks at some of the very best of humanity.



Baby Surgeons: Delivering Miracles, Monday 26th April, 9pm, Channel 4

Pregnancy is not fun. In fact, for me it was an unmitigated nightmare. Nine months of not sleeping well, nervousness, constantly going to the loo, and hormones all over the shop. Both times, it absolutely floored me.

The observant among you will have noticed that I’m a man. I’m led to believe that pregnancy can be even worse for women. My wife certainly didn’t seem to enjoy it. She spent enormous chunks of both pregnancies getting rid of enormous chunks of her last meal. She felt exhausted, ill, hot, uncomfortable and sore. Oh, and angry, very angry. Possibly in part due to being married to someone who complained a lot about how difficult he found being pregnant.

But the truth is, we had it easy. (I know, I know, that’s very easy for me to say, I didn’t actually have a baby inside me, it just looked that way after a lot of pies consumed due to sympathy eating). But we didn’t have any major medical scares, and we were fortunate enough to have two healthy, beautiful babies to take home at the end of it. We were blessed.

It’s not the same for everyone. For all that we might take pregnancy and childbirth for granted in the 21st century, it is by no means a given that everything always turns out as you planned. And in these situations, you really, really want to end up with someone like Professor Basky Thilaganathan. Professor Thilaganathan is Director of Fetal* Medicine at St George’s Hospital in London. And he is my new hero.

This programme follows Professor Thilaganathan as he goes about his daily work. Ostensibly, this is working in medicine. But it looks very much to me as if his field is miracles. This programme follows him as he works on three cases involving him treating the world’s smallest patients – those still in the womb. And it is nothing short of astonishing.

Randika has achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism. She has lost three babies to miscarriage already, and is desperately hoping that this time her baby daughter will survive. At 27 weeks, this pregnancy has gone further than any of her others. But achondroplasia makes pregnancy and giving birth difficult – and there’s still the question of whether her daughter will inherit her condition.

Becky’s baby has a more immediate problem. She (the baby) has a tumour in her lungs. While it is non-cancerous, its size means that unless they operate immediately, her unborn daughter will die. Unbelievably, it is possible to insert a needle into the tumour, and then stick a tiny laser down the needle to zap the tumour. However, the procedure is fraught with danger. “We’re talking about a chest that is 3.5-4cm wide. The tumour is about the size of a Malteser, and the blood vessels less than the thickness of a matchstick,” explains Professor Thilaganathan, “so literally a 1 or 2mm error in placement could be a serious issue.”

Ann-Marie was pregnant with female triplets, but one passed away in the ninth week of her pregnancy. Another one of her girls has Selective Growth Restriction. If she passes away, it could threaten the life of her sister as well.

These are traumatic and terrifying issues, life-and-death writ large, albeit in the very small. And through it all, Professor Thilaganathan is an extraordinary model of calm reassurance, expertise, wisdom and compassion. He is a genuinely remarkable man, doing genuinely remarkable work, and doing it with kindness and skill in abundance. I would like a Professor Thilaganathan myself, to follow me at all times, just reassuring me about life.

This programme, the first of a series following cases in different fetal medicine units, is a superbly-made film, a mixture of ground-breaking science and emotion as old as humanity itself. It is, at times, agonisingly tense, and at others heart-rending stuff. But it is also a salutary reminder that the NHS isn’t just there for us during times of global crisis, but for the small but life-changing crises that could happen to any of us at any time.

*Yes, I known we normally spell it Foetal, but that’s how it’s spelled both in the programme and in his official job title, so don’t start writing to me about it, contact the NHS instead. Actually, don’t, it’s just possible they might need to concentrate on saving babies’ lives and stuff.

Saved by a Stranger, Thursday 29th April, 9pm, BBC Two

I’m off to get my vaccine today. (This takes some explaining to my wife, as I’ve told her I’m 32). I’m fully aware that, in some people’s eyes, having the jab will mean that I immediately and irrevocably fall under the control of Bill Gates. To which I say “Bring it on.” Who would I rather have running my life? The most successful man in history, or a bloke typing with one finger while eating children’s cereal in his pants?

Anyway, I am looking forward to the experience. Not just the protection it will offer me, but also the sense of optimism, the feeling that we are protecting not just ourselves, but others too. And I’m looking forward to being able to thank the people who are working there – employees and volunteers – who are helping life return to a semblance of normality. They’re good people.

And one thing I’ve realised over the last year is this: There are a hell of a lot of good people about. From the people who have organised food deliveries to the people who have checked up on their neighbours; the people risking their lives to do their jobs; the kids sticking rainbow pictures in their windows. We might be an infuriating, confusing, irrational, erratic and peculiar species, but humans are, fundamentally, good. Which brings me to this uplifting new series on BBC Two.

Saved by a Stranger is a factual series, presented by the likeable Anita Rani, which follows people who were involved in some terrible disaster or atrocity as they search for the person who, in that moment of truth, was selfless enough to help them.

Karl was caught up in the events of 7/7, when a bomb exploded in the tube carriage he was in, killing 26 people. A 23-year-old dancer at the time, he was just feet from the bomb. In the ensuing chaos, he thought he was going to die. As this conviction overwhelmed him, a woman’s voice came through the darkness. “Can I hold your hand?” As Karl’s panic mounted, she calmed him down, and reassured him that they would be okay.

Karl wants to thank her. But there is more than that. He has a sense of guilt for something that he did in the moments before they got out of the mangled carriage, and he is desperate to apologise. And more still. He has survivor’s guilt. Why did he live, when so many around him died?

Karl’s story is intercut with that of Emina, who was a 4-year-old living in Sarajevo when war broke out in the city. Her mother had recently given birth to her younger sister, Edina, who was born with Down’s Syndrome. A local paediatric doctor, Natasa Savic, helped the family in the days after the birth.

As the situation in Sarajevo began to deteriorate (illustrated here with shocking archive news footage) Edina began to get ill. Dr Savic managed to get them on a medical evacuee bus, and the family was saved. They made a new life in Birmingham, and ever since, Emina and her family have wondered what became of the doctor who saved them, but stayed in Sarajevo to help others.

As you might imagine, this programme packs something of an emotional punch. It looks at the effects of the darkest side of human nature – terrorism, ethnic cleansing, violence. But that’s not what this programme is about. It’s about the best of humanity – love, sacrifice, selflessness. Whether it’s the policeman in the UK who set up an online community for 7/7 survivors, or the British army officer who arranged evacuations for the children of Sarajevo, or the quietly heroic people that Karl and Emina are searching for, these are ordinary, everyday people who proved to be extraordinary.

Today, Karl is retraining to be a clinical psychologist to help people with PTSD. Emma is a doctor of clinical psychology. What goes around comes around.

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The best… and the rest:

Saturday 24th April

The Great British Spitfire Restoration, 8pm, Channel 4: Al Murray narrates this documentary following a dedicated team of restorers attempting to rebuild a 1943 Spitfire and put her back in the air. Among a colourful collection of characters featured is one of the Spitfires original pilots.

Edward VII: The Merry Monarch, 9pm, Channel 5: Feature-length documentary looking at the life and reign of Edward VII, including the relationships that meant the most to him. The film also charts the remarkable leaps forward made by the nation during his reign, in fields from social to artistic to industrial.

Sunday 25th April

Bargain Loving brits By the Sea, 8pm, Channel 5: A second series for the cheap-and-cheerful show that follows the people who cater for holidaymakers in Blackpool, Skegness and Scarborough.

Monday 26th April

Mastermind, 8pm, BBC Two: After a mammoth 30 previous episodes, the quiz show reaches its climax with an hour-long final, featuring six contestants. John Humphrys makes his last appearance in the inquisitor’s chair.

How to Save a Grand in 24 Hours, 8pm, Channel 4: Anna Richardson presents a new series wherein experts advise a family on how to make savings in their household outgoings. Perhaps your most fiscally profitable hour of the week!

Viewpoint 1/5, 9pm, ITV: New police drama, showing over the next five nights, starring Noel Clarke, Alexandra Roach and Bronagh Waugh. Police are alerted when a Manchester primary school teacher goes missing.

Tuesday 27th April

Ainsley’s Mediterranean Cookbook 1/6, 7:30pm, ITV: Ebullient and irrepressible TV chef Ainsley Harriott embarks on a pan-Mediterranean journey aboard a 44ft catamaran, preparing local delicacies at each stop along the way. Tonight, Corsica.

Thursday 29th April

Gardening with Carol Klein 1/5, 7pm, Channel 5: The horticultural expert offers green-fingered viewers advice from her won cottage garden in Devon. Tonight, how to make room in your vegetable patch for potatoes, and how to get more from your snowdrops and primroses.

Friday 30th April

Royal Wedding: A Day to Remember, 7:30pm, BBC One: A look back at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge that took place ten years and one day ago.

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