Chapter 1

Serendipitous events

Looking back on possible influencing factors which may have stimulated a surgical career, a couple of things come to mind. The first was a totally unexpected birthday gift my father gave me for perhaps my eighth or ninth birthday. He rarely remembered birthdays or Christmas, leaving those areas to my mother. On this occasion, he presented me with a full-size work bench with wooden foot stand and small tools to match: chisels, a small saw, and a half-size hammer, which I still find useful. I spent many hours using these tools and still bear the scar of a chisel cut to my left middle finger which fortunately did not divide the tendon.

The second was precipitated by my middle sister, Elvia, aged 25, having a lobectomy of her lung in 1947, performed by D’Arcy Sutherland at the RAH for bronchiectasis – D’Arcy’s first lung resection in Adelaide following his return from thoracic training in the UK, and the first ever performed in South Australia. (Coincidently, I worked for him as his only resident some 12 years later, in 1959.)

Ellie spent a couple of weeks in hospital and during this time I decided, at the age of 13, to refurbish her room in our house at Woodville. I re-calcimined the walls and ceiling and then decided to put in new light fittings and switches. This necessitated gouging out the walls to bury the conduit metal piping with spackle and then going up into the ceiling to connect the wiring into the old wooden junction boxes (constructed in 1904 and highly dangerous). All this with the aid of a small torch. The connections were made by trial and error after repeatedly switching off the mains in the verandah fuse box, and then bound around with tape.

Parents were unbelievably casual in those days and in later years I realised how lucky I had been not to have been electrocuted. How could my parents allow me to do such a thing? As I remember, they were older, tired of bringing up children and never seemed to take much notice of what I did, or even whose company I kept.

One particular friend I had was Murray Dawkins, who lived in a big house on Woodville Road. His parents kept several horses on the tennis court and ferrets for rabbiting in the sun house which had an impenetrable tiled floor and wire netting enclosing the rest to stop them escaping.

Murray had two older brothers, Jack and Harry, and a well-equipped work shed. In the shed, Murray and I found a jar of gun powder and empty 12-gauge cartridges. We worked out that by filling the cartridges with gun powder mixed with saltpetre and adding a cordite wick, one could construct a very serviceable bomb. My Mother was mightily impressed when we blasted her metal washing bucket some 50 metres into the air.

The Dawkins lived next door to the Jellys on Woodville Road. Mr Jelly was a local councillor and they rarely spoke to each other. One Guy Fawkes night we decided to put one of our bombs inside Jellys’ wire-screened back door. We knocked on the door, the cordite wick burned down and the bomb exploded successfully, with significant damage to the door. That little exploit resulted in a visit from Constable Sparrshott (aka sparrow shit), the sole occupant of the tiny police station on Port Road. He was well known to us; riding his BSA motor cycle with side car around the district, he had more than once spoken to us regarding minor breaches of the law.

The Dawkins also had in one room of their large house a glass case full of fire arms – rifles, shot guns, pistols and such like. On one occasion when Murray was about thirteen, he was handling one of the pistols and pulled the trigger. Unbeknownst to him, it was loaded. The bullet grazed his forehead and left a neat round hole in the ceiling, which I was privileged to see when taken in for a viewing by Jean, their full-time maid.

A similar incident occurred when the two older boys, Harry and Jack, went shooting with their father. They were in the back seat with the rifles between their knees. The track they were driving over was very rough and as they bumped over a ditch, one of the rifles went off, with the bullet making a neat hole in the roof of the car.

I was first aware of a surgical interest during my sojourn in New Zealand as a house surgeon in 1958, my first year after graduation. The circumstances of my arriving in New Zealand were controversial in themselves. My final year of Medicine was much like my final year at school – full of ill humour and frustrations – and so the end results were destined to be the same: failure on each count! Déjá vu.

I have been asked why, during my final year, was I in a bad place. I did not analyse it at the time but have since reflected on my ill humour whilst in sixth year Medicine. The predominant reason was in the football arena – very important to me at the time. I had trained the preseason with Norwood by invitation of a Mr Pitman, a neighbour and committee man at the club, who had learned that I had been a regular player in the State Amateur team.

I had trained well and played well on the wing in their trial matches. Jack Oatey, their famous coach at the time, confided to me just before the opening of the season that the selection committee was planning to select me on one wing with Dougy Olds, a Norwood and State player on the other, together with Peter Koerner at centre. I was excited and continued to train with gusto. However, one week or so before the first match, Norwood’s application for a clearance for me from the West Torrens Football Club was refused. Our family had shifted from Woodville to Toorak Gardens the previous year which put me into the Torrens zone. I appeared on West Torrens’ radar only after the request from Norwood and I found this irritating. After they’d done their research and dashed my expectations, they invited me to train with them. I attended one of their sessions in the company of Magarey medallist Lindsay Head, the famous Hank brothers, Mick Clingly and others. My understanding was that if I attended a training session, I would be given a clearance.

Not so, and there followed an impasse. I told them I was an impecunious student and could not afford the travel. They sent me the letter below.

This development made me angry as I felt I had been deceived – and told them so. The situation was unresolvable. I returned to the University Football Club and was made welcome and played out my last couple of years with them, as graduates were at that time ineligible to play.

Above: From the Adelaide University Football Club book published in 1981 to commenorate the club’s 75th anniversary

The second situation that disturbed me was my parents deteriorating compatibility. The basic cause was my mother’s adherence to a fundamentalist religion, the Cooneyites, and my father’s disagreement with her attending. Insoluble.

The final situation disturbing me was a failed romance!

In our group in sixth year Medicine there were a particularly lively bunch of students, which included a couple of wild boys from St Marks College, Bill Dawson and Chun Hui. Others, such as Trevor Nicholls and John Allen, were more devoted to the student life.

One particularly striking nurse in the outpatient department at the Children’s Hospital had caught my eye and I eventually plucked up the courage to ask her out. She accepted and we had a good relationship for some six months or so. In fact, I was quite smitten and tried to persuade her to come to our football matches on the University Oval. She declined the invitation, which puzzled me at the time, but later it became clear that other members of the team were on her dating list. The most memorable occasion, during the course of this dalliance, occurred when I was returning her at about half past eleven to the Children’s Hospital nurses quarters after a pleasant evening. It was a warm, balmy night and suddenly she said, “Let’s go for a swim.”. Well, that caught me somewhat by surprise, but never one to look a gift horse in the mouth I replied, “What a good idea”.

Without sufficient thought I drove down to Grange Beach by the jetty. Insufficient thought because the beach was well-lit along the foreshore. Undaunted, we took ourselves down to the water’s edge. It was low tide and the water was at least 100 yards further out than normal. But she unselfconsciously stripped naked and headed out. I found myself in a cleft stick – damn those lights! – but with an opportunity that might never come again. I followed suit but rather more slowly as this was a dramatically new experience for me. Much easier to face a Victorian football team in full flight! Maybe there are sharks out there and it would take a bit of explaining to my parents if I were to be taken!

In the meantime, my naked nymph was well out to sea and swimming strongly. She told me she and her brother regularly swam across the Murray and back at Waikerie.

“Come on in, it’s great!” she insisted. Slowly, I waded out to about waist level but no further, keeping an eagle eye out for police cars cruising along the foreshore and stingrays underfoot. The place was deserted.

My nerves could not be assuaged. When finally we both dressed, my spirits were as damp as the wet sand. Instead of replicating Burt Lancaster and Debra Kerr in that famous surf-swept embrace featured in From Here to Eternity, it turned out to be a Peter Sellers comedy farce.

Ah well, everything happens for the best. Or does it! I was unfocussed during that time at the Children’s Hospital. In the end it sorted itself out after I was invited to her twenty-first party at the Mt Osmond Golf Club. I had hought I was to be her partner but found her evening was devoted to a student two years ahead of me in the medical course and a footy team-mate.

After failing my surgical viva in final year – yes, the budding surgeon failed his surgical exam – I was given a supplementary exam in the subject, together with eight or so of my colleagues.

In final year, the supplementary exams were held in May rather than the normal February which in the first five years allowed the students to continue their course without dropping a year. Being held in May in final year meant a frustrating wait of six months before a repeat of the exams which, I think, we all passed.

The Final Test

They were going well

Those final tests

It was the second week,

But I was tiring badly.

Next up the surgery viva;

Alan Lendon was the one  –

‘Check that groin, my son,’ he barked,

‘Yes Sir,’ I said,

‘Give a cough, my man,’

‘And now another.’

Ah, I have it.

‘Well son, we have others on our list.’

‘Yes Sir, it’s a hernia Sir – indirect.

So far, so good,

I move on to the next.

‘Just look at those legs, my boy.’

The biggest veins I ever saw.

But then it happened –

I froze, I stammered,

Didn’t know what to say.

‘Varicose veins Sir,’ I blurted out,

‘Yes, we can all see that!’

Silence reigned,

The surgeons looked at me,

Then at each other,

‘That’ll be all,’ they said –

In measured tones.

I staggered out,

As in a trance

‘You’ve blown it lad,’

Indeed I had.

My mind went back

A ward round eight weeks ere,

‘Twas Siddy Krantz of world war fame.

The special test for veins it was,

‘You boy, at the back,

Tell me what I just said!’

It had been a good weekend,

The one just passed

And Siddy quite broke

My train of thought.

‘When I give my time to teach,

You listen, Son.’

‘I’m sorry, Sir,’ I said.

The moment passed,

No further thought,

No looking up the books that night,

Another lesson never learnt.

What a fool!

What a halfwit!

Someone with half a brain

Would have checked the test that night!

And been prepared

For that last exam.

Alas! Too late, too late.

And so the story goes,

Results are pinned

My name’s not there.

Come back next May

And try again.

No ‘locum tenens’ for you, my boy,

‘Tis driving taxis on the road.


Ross Johnson   March, 2014

After the supplementary exams, there followed an interview by the Medical Superintendent of the Royal Adelaide Hospital to give us our allotted rosters as house surgeons in his establishment. This designated gentleman was one Bernard Nicholson, a pucca Englishman trained in the National Health Service in the UK. In later years we were to become good friends but at this interview we were strangers.

“Well Johnson, I have given you three months Eyes, three months ENT and the remainder in Casualty.”

Being at that stage of my life an angry, frustrated young man I replied, “I don’t like that roster, Sir, could you please find me a better one.”

Whereupon I could see him impatiently squirm in his seat and he retorted rather sharply as though he had more important business to attend to: “Young man, you are in no position to negotiate your roster, and you either take it or you leave it.”

I remember his words and his demeanour as though it were yesterday. I knew they were short of house surgeons that year at the RAH and so I foolishly thought I could call his bluff. It was no bluff or perhaps he thought I needed a lesson; probably both.

“Sir, I think I’ll leave it.” I couldn’t believe I said that.

“Very well, young man, as you wish, good morning,” he replied, as he quickly got up to open the door and receive the next belated graduate.

I was stunned at my stupidity but nevertheless to eat humble pie, recant and apologise to him was not in my makeup. The Royal Adelaide Hospital was a world class hospital with an international reputation and I had delivered my medical career another serious crunch.

To what would I liken my predicament? To Moses departing the presence of Pharoah perhaps? No, I did not have the luxury of being able to rain a pestilence down on his hospital!

What to do? There were no other hospital resident jobs in Adelaide and one had to do a twelve-month house surgeon appointment to register with the Medical Board to practise medicine; so I had stymied myself. Whilst waiting to sit the supplementary exam, I had been employed as a taxi driver so I thought maybe I would go back to that.

On further reflection, I had to concede that I had neglected surgical study. I had thought it so easy and logical that I had not devoted the required time to it. I had not even bothered to buy the recommended text book – Bailey and Love. When I failed the exam, I did buy the text book and had ample time to read it from cover to cover. Of course, my Commonwealth Scholarship was suspended as a result of my failure so I was now responsible for my fees. To cover the cost I sold my microscope and one or two other effects as I was loathe to approach my father – too proud – but I also knew he was without work. When he found out that I had off-loaded the microscope which he had purchased for me, then in second year, from his Ford client at Fauldings Pharmaceuticals, he was less than impressed and said so.

I was twenty-four years of age and my parents and I were mutually sick of living together. In later years with kids of my own, I realised how long-suffering they had been and how unappreciative I was. They had had children at home from 1918 until that year, 1958. Forty years, spanning two world wars and a depression! What a sacrifice! How did they do it without complaining? My mother was 62 and my father 60 in that year. Both older than their years would suggest, with my father losing his job in 1955 for assaulting his boss at the age of 57 and having to live off his life savings thereafter.

I did not immediately discuss my plight with my family. Instead, I studied the employment pages of The Advertiser. A few days later I had a stroke of luck when the following ad appeared.

I had never heard of Wanganui[2] in New Zealand and had considerable difficulty finding it on the map. I deliberated on my position for a day or two and may have talked to one or two people. I had never been out of Australia. New Zealand I knew was popular with South Australian graduates and several of our year were already there – Trevor Pickering, Colin Bailey and Ernie Urban. Why not? I thought. I badly needed a change of environment. I quickly applied, was accepted, and received permission to book an airfare to Wellington via Christchurch.

Fortunately, I had the foresight to carefully preserve the advertisement as, when I applied to the Wanganui Hospital Administrator for my return fare on completion of my twelve months, he initially denied that such an offer had been made and it was only when I produced the advertisement that he paid my dues.

[2] In 2009, the New Zealand Geographical Board recommended the name be changed to ‘Whanganui’.

Read Chapter 2

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