Dr Austin Curtin  on his last day at Lismore Base Hospital.
Dr Austin Curtin on his last day at Lismore Base Hospital. Jacklyn Wagner

Surgeon winds down after 33 years of being on-call

BEING able to affect immediate change in patients was the inspiration for a career that spanned more than three decades for Dr Austin Curtin.

While the passion for healthcare remains, the doctor has stepped away from his work in the public system that first brought him to the Northern Rivers in 1985.


Dr Austin Curtin prepares for theatre on his last day at Lismore Base Hospital.
Dr Austin Curtin prepares for theatre on his last day at Lismore Base Hospital. Jacklyn Wagner

Dr Curtin was 32 when he moved to Lismore and there were only five surgeons working in the area at the time.

He saw the move to Lismore as an opportunity to work in a growing region with a need for more medical specialists and services, and to work closely with one of his mentors, Dr Bill Buddee.

"I really liked the standard of medicine that was being practised at Lismore," Dr Curtin said. "It's so far away from Sydney, and we sit on the other side of the border from Queensland, so it's been allowed to develop into a really good community oriented way of practising healthcare."

Lismore was close to missing out on Dr Curtin's services, at the 11th hour he decided not to pursue specialist surgical oncology training in the USA. He decided he wanted to be a general surgeon instead, fearing the specialist training might narrow his expertise to the point where he would be stuck in one particular field.

"I really liked acute medicine surgery, trauma surgery, and vascular surgery, and I just could not narrow down," Dr Curtin said.

A third generation doctor, Dr Curtin was drawn to surgery by the idea of being able to affect real and immediate change for his patients. That feeling of satisfaction and progress still inspires him to this day.

"You can actually treat people and actually see a result for your work. They actually get better, mostly, within a short period of time," Dr Curtin said.

"Medicine is a fantastic profession because you get to be involved with people at really decisive moments in their life. You're really privileged in that sense, but you also get to manage them and you do cure people as a surgeon."

Living in Tregeagle proved beneficial for Dr Curtin's family as well as his career. Together, Austin and Annie have five adult children, and seven grandchildren, most of whom live in regional centres.

"One of the really nice things about leaving Sydney is actually changing the way your family sees the world. They are all quite capable of living anywhere," he said. "If you live in a rural city or town you actually are part of a community, your kids go to school with the children of the accountant, the plumber, the mechanic, the shop owners; you all know who each other are."

Dr Curtin trained at Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital, before taking up a post in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the early 1980s. He had also wanted to join the Army Reserves for some time, but it wasn't until many years later, after 9/11, that he felt he was ready to take that step.

"I thought at that stage that I had all the skills as a rural general surgeon, so I felt quite comfortable operating in pretty much every body cavity," he said.

Deployed to Afghanistan, and later Iraq, Dr Curtin experienced first-hand the difficulties faced by soldiers, both during their tours and on return home.

"Soldiers have to run two lives, leading that military life over there, dependent on your mates, and then trying to keep control of the life that you're leading at home, it's not an easy thing to do," he said.

In his 33 years of practising in Lismore, Dr Curtin has seen Lismore Base Hospital transform from a service-providing hospital into a teaching hospital. Today, medical students, nurses and allied health students, prevocational students and registrars all come to Lismore to receive training and input from experienced senior clinicians across the spectrum of medical disciplines.

"There are a lot of like-minded people here now, and they're interested in the results that we achieve and how to improve the situation and get better," he said.

Being a part of this transformation has been one of the great joys of Dr Curtin's career, to the point where Lismore was poised to become a regional training hub, and research and training opportunities are growing all the time.

"The best way to develop our regional workforce is to actually grow them in the country. If we can do that, we will have great success."

Teaching the next generation of surgeons was a passion for Dr Curtin, and it helps keep him on his toes.

"It's great to have them pointing out that you lack knowledge in certain areas, re-educating you and bringing you up to date all the time," he said.

Dr Curtin has retired from work in the public system, having done strenuous on-call work for more than 33 years. He will continue to teach medical students and help colleagues in theatre, but his own practice at St Vincent's Hospital will slowly wind down over the coming years, leaving room for his other pursuits such as woodworking, learning to fly and his family.

Dr Curtin's retirement will also make way for other young surgeons to get a foot in the door.

"I'm almost not ready to retire, but it's time to allow new young people to move in and get themselves going," Dr Curtin said. "No doubt, the new young gun knows more than me!"

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