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A life in the theatre

Amanda Bryan
Med J Aust
Published online: 4 June 2012

Urologist Professor Mohamed Khadra wields both scalpel and pen with precision.

What do famous Australian playwright David Williamson and Mohamed Khadra, a professor of surgery at the University of Sydney, have in common? They are the joint-authors of a new Australian play about end-of-life decisions.

Their co-creation At any cost? was performed 60 times at the Ensemble Theatre last year and is about to be published in an anthology of plays.

The unlikely collaboration was born at a pivotal moment: Williamson called when Professor Khadra was in the middle of performing a nephrectomy.

The call wasn’t entirely out of the blue though. Professor Khadra had approached Williamson at the Brisbane Writers Festival six weeks earlier, suggesting they team up.

He presented the surprised playwright with two non-fiction books he’d penned and had published, Making the cut and The patient, to help his case.

“I’m not one to ignore the little voices in my heart, so I said  ‘Mr Williamson, you don’t know me but we should write a play together’.”

At any cost? deals with the decisions that patients and their families make when the end of life looms. Professor Khadra was charged with writing the plot and the medical dialogue. Williamson applied his genius, says Professor Khadra, to creating a believable family with the various intricacies of conflicts, baggage and the history that becomes evident whenever major decisions are being contemplated.

As these issues were thrashed out on the stage, Professor Khadra could be found in a different sort of theatre — taking media calls between operations.

Despite his publishing success, Professor Khadra says surgery remains his first love. “Growing up, the only thing I wanted to do was become a doctor. I used to operate on my teddy bear and my first toy was a doctor’s kit.”

Professor Khadra was born in Ghana to Lebanese parents. He tells how his father, who fought in the Second World War, moved to Africa to make his fortune.

Although his dad didn’t achieve his ambition, he did get married and, in 1970, when Professor Khadra was 10, the young family moved to Sydney.

At the time, Australia was going through remarkable change, Professor Khadra says. By 1972, he was handing out leaflets in support of Gough Whitlam.

“I had an immediate interest in what was happening in terms of politics. I saw the introduction of Medicare and the abolition of fees for university — which meant I could get an education without being beholden to anyone else.”

But his career dreams were temporarily stymied after he missed out on medicine by one mark in his HSC. “It was hard-hitting at the time”, he says.

After studying dentistry for 3 years, however, he was able to transfer to medicine at the University of Newcastle. He completed his internship at Prince Alfred Hospital, and then trained as a urologist and became a senior lecturer.

However, his personal and professional life took a few twists and turns before he picked up the pen.

In 1996, just after the birth of his second son, he woke up with a lump in his neck. It was thyroid cancer and, during the months of treatment that followed, he discovered he wanted more from life.

“It struck me that the usual model of specialist training was to graduate, put up a brass plaque and then retire 40 years later. I wanted more.”

So after making a full recovery, he and the family made a few moves, first to Newcastle in the United Kingdom, followed by Wagga Wagga, where Professor Khadra started the first Australian rural medical school, linked to the University of New South Wales.

Next, he became pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Canberra, where he ran the health and science schools.

When Professor Khadra got a hankering to get back to clinical medicine, he started a new surgical school at the Australian National University.

It was here, he says, that something started to weigh on him: Australia’s medical education system was luring the best and brightest students away from developing countries.

Hoping to flip the model on its head, he and his wife established the Institute of Higher Education, which offered Australian degrees in developing countries at prices the students could afford.

The students would undertake to stay in their country and, in return, would get a good quality Australian education. In addition to medicine, the institute also offered courses in business, information technology and health informatics.

“It was huge. It spanned 22 countries and we had 1000 students but, at the end of the day, the model required more funding than we had, so McGrath Education Centres took us over.”

The 8-year venture had extracted a hefty financial cost on the family, so Professor Khadra returned to medicine. He took a post at Nepean Hospital in Sydney’s west, where he currently practises. He is also a professor of surgery at the University of Sydney.

In 2007, a patient (also an author) introduced him to a literary agent, and Professor Khadra’s writing career was born.

His most recent book, Terminal decline, was published in 2010. It dissects the national health system and points to a system in crisis. Professor Khadra says he has a couple more books in mind — including a story about his father’s life.

  • Amanda Bryan


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