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Associate Professor W Bruce Conolly's work has taken him among the world's most deprived people.

The Courtyard Cafe was the only place for lunch with Associate Professor W Bruce Conolly. As the patriarchal, stooped surgeon walks from his consulting rooms through the ageing sandstone quadrangle off Macquarie Street – “the most valuable land in the whole of Australia” – and steps into the altogether unclinical savoir faire of Sydney Hospital and Sydney Eye Hospital’s refined meeting place, it’s clear the 80-year-old is no one-off customer. Without the squash-loving Burmaphile, the cafe mightn’t exist.  

“I’m a nuisance,” he says of his continued agitation to help assure its future.  The medical library has also found itself in the crosshairs of his salvation efforts. “I’m hoping the government of the day will put some more money back into this prestigious place and build it up,” he says, his voice competing with the cloister’s lunch-hour din and tinkle.

One of the grandfathers of modern hand surgery in Australia, “Prof”, as he is known to his students, founded Sydney Hospital’s Hand Unit 43 years ago. His book about its history, written for its 40th anniversary, was launched last year by his friend and peer, former NSW governor Dame Marie Bashir (who, by the way, is the only person in his work circles to get away with calling him Bruce. “I’m old-fashioned in that if it’s semi-official: full titles, no Christian names. She calls me by my Christian name, but I never do that to her, of course.”).

The unit, safeguarded in its early days in no small part by trade unions, whose members were major beneficiaries from its pioneering care, is a world leader in the minutiae of the 27 bones, myriad tendons and soaring complexity of our most vulnerable organ.

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It’s a fitting area of expertise for Woollahra-based Conolly, whose life of travel with his wife, Joyce; extraordinary connections; and boundless energy are glimpsed in tantalising vignettes over bowls of chicken and vegetable soup on a clear, cool day.

Alongside his beautifully archaic chivalry and mischievous glint, anecdotes are part of the territory. Conolly, who has two sons and a daughter, has met and worked with, among  the world’s “great characters”, Mother Teresa, a serendipitous encounter born over a cup of tea with an earnest Jesuit priest in a Calcutta hotel. He counted as one of his best friends Saddam Hussein’s private surgeon and helped a Sarajevan friend set up a hospital in Montenegro after the Bosnian war – “they tried to assassinate him … but the Croats loved him, the Bosnians loved him, the Serbians loved him. It showed the universality of medicine”.

Among the famous names, he has as much admiration for a local patient who took in a child whose family life had fallen apart. Perhaps most relevant to his current work was a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi in 2013. Indelible as the moment was, the true litmus test came, not for the first time, though his wife.

“Joyce is great on handshakes. Now, in some parts of the world, ladies don’t shake hands, which is a great pity, but Joyce always has, from her background in Ireland, and so forth,” he says, brimming with admiration for his partner in work, leisure and travel, “and she said Aung San’s handshake is one of the most memorable contacts she’s had with anybody.”

The daughter of an Irish Catholic and an English Protestant, Dr Joyce Conolly met her future husband in London – she was Ireland’s squash champion and he a lifelong fan of the sport. “She was so annoyed, because I kept giving her points. She said, ‘If I can’t win them, I don’t want them!’”

“Fan” is perhaps a little dismissive. In the 1950s, he played in NSW’s grade one team and he has travelled from leprosy colonies in Addis Ababa to hotels in Baghdad with his racquet in tow. He still plays, as well as tennis and golf. “Over the last 12 months, I feel my energy level’s dropped off 17 per cent,” he says with only a touch of whimsy.

His connection with Suu Kyi was not based on chance, because, while he has a special fondness for Europe and India, Burma is neatly placed, geographically and culturally, for his philanthropic attention. There, he delivers hand surgery education under the banner of his 2013-founded Myanmar Australia Conolly Foundation for Health, largely paying out of his own pocket to transport materials and courses to staggeringly under-resourced communities.

He always travels with Joyce, who runs her own program of medical teaching for women. Her recent brainchild, a bicycle stretcher built in Sydney, made its first tracks in the mountainous region of Karen in November, where they treated hundreds of patients who had never before seen a doctor. If he could, he’d simultaneously be delivering medical care to those in the Middle East, Calcutta and Nigeria, but even Conolly admits “there is a limit to what you can do”.

“I’ve got to feel the need and I’ve got to like the people, or more importantly, they’ve got to like me. Because, then, you give everything.”

Closer to home, he cares deeply for Sydney Hospital, too. Its future might lie in fostering its non-specialist areas, he suggests.

“It’s touch and go. There’s a shortage of money for health, but I’ve always felt that a hospital ought to have the ability for general medicine, general surgery and be highly skilled in other areas.”

He has watched old-fashioned examination, compassion and person-to-person caring largely give way to a world of tests and technology-driven solutions. But it is the creeping mix of money and medicine that he seems most wary of. His oration to medical graduates at Bond University in November 2013 – “I loved it,” he says with relish, “I went to town” – made no bones about the pressures on modern doctors.

You build your reputation on good manners, listening and compassion, he told his mortarboarded audience. And over-charging, he added, is as unhealthy as it is damaging.

Still, as much as he has largely side-stepped the distraction of money, it may be the saviour of both his academic home and his charity work. It is also undeniably wrapped up in the government’s stance on immigration, which is jarringly at odds with his philosophy of not sitting in judgment and always giving people a second chance.

“I’m not happy about it,” he says of a border policy that is “too tough”.

“The majority of people have left their place because they are asylum seekers, because they are being tortured. Most people have no idea of the circumstances of life in the back of Baghdad, or Sri Lanka or anywhere else. I would take the risk and if it means that a lot of [economic refugees] come here, well, that’s…” he reaches for the right word in a sea of concerns, “…one of those things”.

Our soup plates are silently cleared as Conolly’s spiritualism, never far from the surface, comes into full sight. As important as his daily dose of sport is his devotion to matters of mind and spirit. In characteristically ecumenical style, he is a regular at church services across refugee, high Anglican and Jesuit communities and, true to his all-inclusive purview, he asked Premier Mike Baird to be the guest speaker at the annual ecumenical service he organises. Indeed, when Bruce Conolly dies, a friend of his jokes, we won’t be able to get into the church for all of the priests.

After our light meal – no dessert, tea later – we climb the stairs to Australia’s oldest medical library, a hard-won place of hushed study and holed-up scholars. It’s a quiet treasure in a city of shifting priorities, much like Conolly himself.

Life and times

1935 Born in Molong, NSW

1952 Left Sydney Church of England Grammar

1959 Graduated from  St Pauls College, University of Sydney

1966 Married his Irish bride, Joyce, in London

1972 Founded the Sydney Hospital Hand Unit

1994 Appointed Member of the Order of Australia

1999 Awarded Paul Harris International Rotary Fellowship

2007 Appointed pioneer of the International Federation of Hand Surgeons

2008 Awarded for excellence in surgery by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons

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