Senator Alan Eggleston

Speeches

14

I was recently asked on a Perth ABC radio program, Who are you, whether I had experienced much prejudice because of my height during my life. My height is just 52 inches. I have a cartilaginous condition called dyschondroplasia, which causes short stature. But I can say in all honesty that I have rarely experienced prejudice and that when I did it was probably more devastating because I was not ready for it and did not understand the irrationality that drives such behaviour.
 
I grew up in Busselton, a seaside resort town on Geographe Bay on the south-west corner of Australia and attended the local primary school. Schools are places where kids who are different are often taunted. But that did not happen to me at that school. At the age of 11, I went to Christ Church, a boarding school in Claremont in Perth. I recall telling my Senate colleague Senator Williams, who is here tonight, this and he responded by saying, 'I bet you had a tough time there.' But, no, I did not. I loved being at the school and I am pleased to say that some of my closest friends remain the boys I met at boarding school at the age of 11. Busselton was and is a holiday town and sometimes tourists would point at me. But I have always divided the world into two groups: those I knew and those I did not. What people in this latter category said or did, I disregarded. Were people I knew to do or say the same, I would have been deeply offended.
 
The only time that I have experienced prejudice was from one department in the clinical medical school of the University of Western Australia. That is what I want to talk about tonight. I have never talked about this matter publicly before and, as my colleague Helen Kroger has just said, it might be helpful to somebody out there listening to this.
 
I decided to study medicine when I was 16. Medicine appealed for idealistic reasons, because it was humanitarian. It was, seemingly, endlessly interesting and one could travel with a medical degree, which I was very interested in doing. Having enrolled in medicine, my pharmacist father suggested that I should discuss my plan with the medical school, which I did. The then dean, who was a British obstetrician from Hong Kong thought, like me, that the problems that I might face due to my height
were more apparent than real. He said that I would obviously need to use a footstool to do various things, such as surgery. The then professor of medicine, Professor Eric Saint, took me to a ward to show me how high the beds were at the Royal Perth Hospital. I must say that I was genuinely surprised that the beds came up to my mid-chest. I thought that they must have been imported from the Crimea after Florence Nightingale had finished with them. A portable stool was again seen to be the solution for me.
 
So it was that I became a pre-clinical medical student at the campus at Crawley. I did pretty well academically and generally enjoyed student life, which for me involved the rowing club as a cox, the Liberal club, the guild of undergraduates—of which I became a guild counsellor—and the NUAUS, as it was then. My interest in political matters began at an early age.

I was very keen and full of enthusiasm as I began fourth year medicine and clinical medicine. Fourth year medical units did four so-called clinical clerkships or terms, two on medical wards and two on surgical wards, each lasting about eight weeks or so, during the course of their year. My first such clinical clerkship was with the university department of surgery. It involved clerking patients, or writing up their notes and reading up about their conditions, with two teaching ward rounds a week. These took the form of a reader, or associate professor as they are called these day, selecting a case and then quizzing the students about the condition that this patient had and its investigation and management.
 
At that stage—the beginning of their clinical careers—students do not know much about the pathology and disease processes and these two readers quizzed all the students. But one surgeon in particular gave me a really hard time. However, I always answered his questions with a straight bat and if I did not know what he was driving at I said so. After these ward rounds, the patients would call me over and say that I had stood up to the surgeon's questioning well. I thought that for the patients it was a bit like being on the set of a Doctor in the House movie. But, as I was to find, there was a hard edge to it.
 
My second clinical term was with the chest physicians at the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and was totally different. The physicians were pleasant and friendly and eager to teach. That is the essential difference between physicians and surgeons: they are much more pleasant people, the physicians. The surgeons are always very demanding and have a go-ahead attitude. Three weeks into the term, one of them, a Dr Lefroy, took me aside to tell me that in the view of my tutor I was handling the clinical situation quite well by, for example, compensating for my height by sitting patients on bedside chairs to examine their chests and of course using a footstool. He said that while some had doubted that I would be able to examine patients satisfactorily, it was their view that I would be able to meet the requirements with a few innovations on my part.
 
However, a week or so later I received a call from the university department of surgery at Royal Perth Hospital, requesting my attendance at a meeting with the university department of surgery and with one of the readers whom I had encountered on these teaching rounds. I went to the tutorial room at the university department of surgery wondering what the meeting would be about. I did not have long to wait to find out that the meeting would be extraordinary. One of the readers opened up the proceedings by saying, 'We want you to resign from medical course immediately.'

I was shocked, given the friendly tone of the previous week's meeting at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, and simply said, 'I have no intention of resigning from the medical course.' To this the reader replied, rather harshly, 'Well, in that case, we'll fail you out of the course in the fourth-year exams.' To that I replied: 'I don't think so. The Department of Surgery is not on the fourth-year examination board'—which I knew was composed of the clinical science departments of pathology, pharmacology and microbiology. Then he said, 'I will personally make sure that you never graduate in medicine from this university.'
 
At that point, seeing no purpose in continuing the dialogue, I turned and walked out of the room. However, I was quite deeply shaken. I went and sat on the lawns around St Mary's Cathedral in Victoria square, adjacent to the Royal Perth Hospital. At first I thought of seeking to discuss, with the two professors I had met with before starting the course, this threatening conversation I had just had with this particular surgeon. Also, I lived at St George's College within the university, and the warden, Josh Reynolds, was a highly regarded political figure within the university who I thought could advise me.
 
But after some reflection over a few days I decided not to tell anyone what had happened, and I did not seek the assistance of senior people within the university or the hospitals—I decided to just keep on and demonstrate that I could meet the requirements of the course. I believed that was the way to go, and that only I could prove that I could do it—but, in the end, it was not as simple as that. I was perhaps rather naive, because I had really never had to deal with serious prejudice and thought that, as time went on, based on my performance, it would all just disappear. But it did not—at least from the individuals concerned.
 
The other of these surgeons used to throw me out of lectures, sometimes even before they had begun, for trivial reasons such as that I appeared to be making ready to go to sleep in the lecture before it began, which seemed to be a joke to the rest of the class—but I did not find it very amusing. Here I was, in a professional course, and as I sat on the steps outside the lecture theatre at Royal Perth Hospital, I could not believe this was happening—having just been thrown out of a lecture before it had begun.
 
I reflected on the fact that I was a long way into a course, but it seemed that learning and passing the exams were not the criteria I was to be judged on; rather, it was satisfying some X factor, undefined and therefore impossible to deal with in a rational way. This was compounded when I was in fifth year and became the National Secretary of the Australian Medical Students Association and had a meeting with the then dean—whose background was from continental Europe—and WA student representatives about a student exchange program funded by the Nuffield Foundation, with UWA and the University of Colombo in what is now Sri Lanka.
 
Following the joint meeting the dean asked me to remain in his office. He said, 'You have a very broad understanding of the importance of this exchange program. I can understand why your student colleagues made you their national secretary'—which seemed very friendly. But then he added, 'Of course, in Europe someone like you would not be permitted to do medicine, and you must understand that no matter how well you do in your final exams a separate decision will be made about whether to grant you a medical degree.' I was stunned and shocked, but did not say

anything and just left the office. This discussion seemingly confirmed my worst fears: that it was not a level playing field, not a matter of studying and passing exams but a matter of satisfying some indefinable X factor, as I said, in the minds of people such as this old-school European professor.

I began to wonder if I was wasting my time doing the remainder of the course, because I seemed to be on an escalator which might end at a brick wall. It seemed an impossible situation, and I did not know what to say to my parents about it, as they were country people and I thought they would not really comprehend this prejudice, of a kind that was not what one encountered in a small country town like Busselton—or anywhere else I had been in WA, I must say. So, rather than say what had happened, and what I thought the outcome would be, I thought of suggesting to my father that perhaps I should change to a law course, without explaining why. But I did not do that, as I felt in some way that this prejudice reflected on me, in the sense that I should have been able to overcome it, and that it would be perceived as weakness if I could not. Then—inevitably, one might think on looking back—I became depressed.
 
I was one of those students who was always thinking about books to buy, things to look up and so on, but this stopped, and those kinds of thoughts were not there anymore. I also stopped dreaming before sleeping at night. It was almost as if the television had been turned off and the screen went blank. I came up with a number of excuses to explain my apparent waning interest in the medical course, such as that I was too busy doing other things et cetera, but in reality I felt disheartened and had little confidence in the fairness of the final examination process.
 
I did not, in fact, pass the exams at the end of that year. After the exams were over the then professor of medicine, who knew something of me from Professor Saint, his predecessor, said he could get me into the University of Melbourne but that I would have to do the fifth and sixth years again with their course. But one of my older brothers, who was in London, suggested that I take the qualifying exams held by the various Royal medical colleges in London—and that was what I did: I was eligible to do them, so I went to London and I qualified there.
 
I spent some four years in England, working in various hospitals, and then came home for what I intended to be about six months before returning to the UK and continuing to live there for a while—in fact, probably quite a while. However, after working in Perth for 18 months I wanted to realise a long-held desire to spend some time in the north-west where, when I was 12, I had spent a May school holidays at Wittenoom in the spectacular Hamersley Ranges. At that time I had been captivated by the spectacular red gorges, the azure blue skies and the yellow spinifex of the Pilbara, which is really beautiful after the wet season. As a result of that visit I so believed in the future of the north that I wrote an editorial in the annual magazine of Christ Church Grammar School titled Go north young man, go north. But I think I was the only person from my class who took my advice.
 
The opportunity for me to go north came after a conversation I had with some pharmaceutical company representatives at Fremantle Hospital to whom I expressed interest in the north-west medical service of the WA Department of Health, which staffed the hospitals in the north. As a result, the very next day I received a call from the health department suggesting I come in to discuss working in the north-west medical service. In fact, they said they had heard on the grapevine that I was interested in going up north, and I said, 'That is some grapevine, considering that the conversation in which I had expressed interest in going to the north-west was less than 24 hours
ago.'

I was told the department was looking for doctors with procedural skills. In the UK I had done anaesthetics and obstetric terms, so I was offered a job. It was agreed that I would spend six months in the north—three months in Port Hedland and then three months in Broome. However, I never left Port Hedland and that six months became 22 years and has defined the remainder of my life.

After some 18 months working at the Port Hedland Regional Hospital and doing Royal Flying Doctor Service clinics in places like Shay Gap and Marble Bar, as well as escort flights to the Perth hospitals, I established a successful private practice, became the mayor of Port Hedland, regional president of the Liberal Party in the Pilbara and Kimberly, the state vice president and then a senator for WA, in 1996.
 
Many years after I first met Professor Saint—who had once also been a district medical officer at the Port Hedland Hospital where, with Dr McNulty, a public health physician, he had called attention to the danger of asbestos related diseases at Wittenoom—he came to say hello to me at the Port Hedland Regional Hospital. With something of a twinkle in his eye, he greeted me as a colleague. I felt very honoured by it. I thought I should record this story because, as some people have said, it might provide some inspiration to somebody who feels that because of some physical abnormality they are being held back. I think the answer is just to keep on going and you will succeed in the long run.

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