June 5, 2009
Christopher O'Brien paid tribute to his family.
CHRISTOPHER O'BRIEN, the world-renowned cancer specialist who died from a brain tumour last night, acquired many honours during his career, including being made an officer in the Order of Australia, to be announced in the Queen's Birthday honours list on Monday.
But, in his final interview two days ago, Professor O'Brien said what mattered most to him was his standing in the eyes of his three adult children: "I just
want my children to really know they knew their father well and they loved and admired him as a person. That's my only wish really."
Professor O'Brien, who was 57, led research into head and neck cancer in Australia and operated on hundreds of patients, including the Test cricketer Norman O'Neill and the Dragon lead singer Marc Hunter.
Diagnosed with a brain tumour in November 2006, he refused to bow to his grim prognosis. He had five major operations before succumbing to the disease in Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.
The Herald visited the doctor at his Hunters Hill home on Wednesday to discuss his AO, awarded for his achievement in establishing the $150 million Lifehouse Centre at the hospital, the first purpose-built integrated cancer centre in Australia.
The man who played rugby for Sydney University and was well-known to television audiences as a vigorous and charismatic surgeon on the reality show RPA, sat hunched in an armchair, surrounded by books, his dog asleep at his feet.
Six weeks ago he had become paralysed on his left side, yet he retained the tenacity of mind that powered his stellar career.
He seemed keen to write his own legacy. Before the first question, he stated there were three things he wanted to get across: "The first is that I'm honoured to be recognised. Second is that, in my 30 years as a doctor and more than 20 years working as a specialist cancer surgeon, I really haven't achieved anything that was worthwhile by myself. I've been supported and assisted by many unselfish, dedicated people, the most important of whom has been my wife Gail.
"Thirdly, there are thousands of people in Australia who work quietly and humbly and who are very dedicated, who don't get recognised."
He paid tribute to the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, for backing the cancer centre, which he believed was essential to meet the growing challenge of cancer among the ageing population.
He said he wanted to become a doctor because he was "an idealist … and it would allow me to use what few talents I had to the best advantage".
Though his physical condition had deteriorated in the final months of his life, he was grateful he could read, and be read to by his wife and children.
He said his work had prepared him for the disease and for death: "I think inevitably I'll die of this, and I'm not frightened of dying. I'm at peace with my situation, I'm not willing it to come quick but it will come soon enough."
Gail and his children were with him at the end.