Dr Austin Curtin

Dr Chris Ingall talks to recently retired Lismore surgeon, Dr Austin Curtin AM

I’m enjoying a cup of tea with Austin Curtin,  looking out at the huge fig trees that define his garden. It strikes me how their deep roots and strength allow such reach across the lawn, and how that is mirrored in Austin’s approach to his vocation over nearly 40 years here in Lismore. He tells me of his decision to leave Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital in the early 1980s and how it was viewed with bafflement by his peers, who saw no advancement in serving ‘the bush’.

You use the word ‘serving’ quite a bit. Does that come from your formative years?

Well I was Jesuit trained, and one of the Jesuit mottos is ‘Men for Others’, which articulates the idea of service developing self-worth. I’m also a third-generation doctor and I guess I was inculcated with medicine as a vocation rather than a job. I have always seen rural and remote medicine as needing a voice, deserving of more attention from what is still a strongly metropolitan-based health system. Indigenous health stands to gain from taking this perspective, and I have always thought it a privilege to represent both rural New South Wales and indigenous communities.

Why did you choose Lismore? 

I knew Bill Buddie, and when I came to Lismore I saw it really was a centre of excellence for surgery even back then. Bill was always interested in the person who needed surgery, as well as the type of surgery he or she needed. 

GP Andrew Binns was cut from the same cloth, and like Bill was interested in and active in the community. At North Shore where I trained, Graham Coupland and Tom Reeve were both impressive men and surgeons, with Tom one of the first advocates for clinical surgery to the government. Cliff Hughes was a cardiothoracic surgeon there who went on to head the Clinical Excellence Commission, so in a sense I feel I really do stand on the shoulders of giants.

What changes have you seen over the years?

There has been a real renaissance in rural and remote specialist medicine, not only for the coastal fringe but also inland, which is most gratifying. People can now finish their training and say they would like to go to Orange or Dubbo and no one will blink. 

What we’ve got here in the Richmond Valley is very special, as we have the UCRH bringing students from a number of different universities to link with the specialist and GP training in this valley. We have built up great undergraduate and junior doctor teaching, a rural hub for registrar development and I am very excited about now supporting a research initiative for consultants through the Curtin PhD scholarship for Postgraduate Clinical Research in Indigenous and Rural Health. 

I would like to think we have reached a ‘critical mass’ of specialists and GPs, to ensure this will continue to build.

They say you get your gong for all the things you do that you aren’t paid for.
[Ed: In 2020, Dr Curtin was honoured as a Member in the General Division for the Order of Australia for his significant service to medicine and health outcomes in regional communities].

My involvement with junior doctor training from the very early days of the Postgraduate Medical Council right through to sitting on the board of IMET, which became CETI and now HETI, chiefly as a rural voice. I can’t tell you the number of hours I have sat through Sydney-based meetings, before we had the Skype and Zoom connectivity we have now, but I do feel they have been fruitful, as we see our Rural-based Preferentials training in our hospitals and building a sense of local ownership in clinicians in their training. 

We are no longer just a Metro spoke but very much a Rural hub, and that also will continue to grow.

What are your plans now?

I feel fortunate to still be in reasonable health and I’m hoping to spend more time with my wife Annie and the family. The kids and grandkids are well spread geographically, so I have taken up flying so I can visit them more frequently. 

It’s certainly a buzz and I’m really enjoying it. I have also taken up golf, which is arguably enjoyable, and enables some good bonding with my mates. Mind you, I do wonder whether I will be able to take my eye off rural health completely… so watch this space.  

Further background on Dr Austin Curtin is available on the SCU web site.