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Plastic surgeon Dr Malcolm Linsell.

Inside the ethics of a leading plastic surgeon

YOU can hear it in his voice.

The voice of a man who's saved a life - there's a ring to it.

The pride sets the beat, gushing gratitude the tempo, all the while the sense of humility echoing throughout.

Dr Malcolm Linsell is a plastic surgeon who has saved more than just a life. He's altered the lives of many.

But he was in just his second year of plastic surgery when he was hit with the task of a lifetime.

Wesley Koni, a young boy from Papau New Guinea, had arrived in Melbourne in desperate need of specialist medical treatment - burns had horribly disfigured him.

"I was shocked when I first saw him," Malcolm told Weekend.

 

 

The first time Wesley Koni and Dr Malcolm Linsell had seen each other in 20 years since Koni's major operations.
The first time Wesley Koni and Dr Malcolm Linsell had seen each other in 20 years since Koni's major operations.

 

"The photos didn't prepare me for how disfigured he was. I remember he arrived on a cold Melbourne night, huddled in his father's arms. His head was at 90 degrees to where it should have been, infused to his chest."

Wesley's journey to Malcolm began when a Salvation Army worker in PNG came across an article about the young surgeon in the War Cry (the Salvos' newsletter).

Malcolm had grown up in the Salvation Army, where his parents Frank and Jean were officers, which led to the story about his achievements being published.

"I thought the readership (in PNG) was very limited, pubs and trains only, but it was seen and read by a young female Salvos worker in the Eastern Highlands of PNG," Malcolm explained.

"She knew of this little boy, badly burnt and severely disfigured. She thought I may be able to do something and somehow contacted me and sent me photographs and I went 'Oh my gosh, what are we going to do here?'

"My brother was the minister and his church organised the logistics and I organised the medical side.

"We didn't even know how old he was but his father thought he was three or four. He had never even been outside of his home."

Malcolm and his team had to question whether the operation to firstly separate his head from his chest was even possible. Then if they could do it safely.

"I firstly took him to several of my colleagues who had more experience than me," Malcolm said. "I was only a few years out of training. They said 'good luck son'.

"There were plenty of sleepless nights. But the one thing that got us through was if we didn't do anything, Wesley was going to die. Our understanding was, if he became a burden to the tribe, the tribe would just leave him, so we were willing to take more controlled risks."

 

 

Dr Malcolm Linsell pictured with Wesley Koni the day after Wesley’s last operation at St Vincent’s Private Hospital in Kew.
Dr Malcolm Linsell pictured with Wesley Koni the day after Wesley’s last operation at St Vincent’s Private Hospital in Kew. contributed

 

The first controlled risk took three hours, and then over the course of about five years and frequent trips back and forth from PNG for Wesley, Malcolm decided he could do no more for him and referred him on to another colleague. That was the last he saw of the young boy for 22 years.

Just three years ago a merely curious Malcolm made inquiries about Wesley. Malcolm found him living in Sydney, working with the Salvation Army and with the same lady who recommended him to Malcolm originally, Lorraine Mack. And the pair met for a drink.

"I was able to see him just a day later. It was fantastic. He was a normal, functioning human being. It was the first time I had seen him as an adult - laughing, joking, gracious and grateful for all the people who had put time into him.

"He remembered me straight away, oh yes. We hugged and shook left handed, which was important as I always shook him left handed - his right hand fingers are burnt off.

"It was just lovely and he even paid for drinks."

Malcolm insisted he was just "one of many, many people who made it happen".

"It's humbling, gratifying and fulfilling to look back on that. To see the change in him and his family's life.

"It was awesome. I remember thinking, 'oh my gosh, what a difference I have made to him'. You don't forget that."

 

 

 

After decades of patients, only a few stand out, usually for the wrong reasons. This, however, was for the right ones.

Karen Hawkins came to Malcolm more than 20 years ago. She had a young family and was pregnant with her second child. She had a large melanoma on her scalp. It was a do-or-die situation.

"There were so many questions over how we treat it. Do we abort the unborn child? Can we do the surgery? Can we do it safely?" he said.

"I cut around it and put a skin graft on her scalp but it wasn't enough. We had to remove bone, which is serious stuff.

"But it got to the stage where I had to refer her to the same colleague, Michael Leong. Then I lost contact and feared the worst."

Time passed and just last year a strange message came up on Malcolm's Facebook page - "Hi Malcolm, you might not remember me, my name is Karen Hawkins and I am still alive and so is my 19-year-old daughter".

"Karen and her husband Scott came to see me and that was just extraordinary. She told me that I had made such a difference in her life and that her daughter was a healthy woman now.

"It is such a strange and humbling feeling to hear those words."

Malcolm can look back on a life littered with coincidences. It was by his own making that he became a plastic surgeon - but at the time there was no way he could have known.

"When I was a toddler, Mum was making lollies and I think I must have managed to crawl up a chair and put both of my hands on the hotplate. I sustained full thickness burns to both my palms.

"The local GP in country Victoria bandaged them up and allowed it to heal, which it did but with scar tissue.

"It was fine until I hit puberty and my hands grew. I had to have an operation to release my fingers."

As a child he had been obsessed with the medical world. His favourite television show was about a brain surgeon, and studying medical journals a hobby.

He decided, when he was six years old, he wanted to become a doctor, but when he had surgery on his hands at 13, he zeroed in on plastic surgery.

"I had my surgery done and when the doctor came to take my stitches out he drove off in a Jaguar and I thought that was the coolest thing ever," he said.

"I looked at him and said 'I want to be that man'.

"About 20 years later when I was sitting my exams, that doctor, John Hanrahan was the examiner. And he failed me. I had totally stuffed up. The second time he failed me again.

"The third time I was so ready for the exam and of course, he wasn't the examiner. But I have since told him the story and he loves it."

Malcolm does not see himself as an extraordinary man. He is a "surgeon of self-esteem" but not "the best of anything".

"I've made some silly mistakes… lost all my money, my wife left me and I had a stroke, but through it all I have resilience and I learn from my mistakes," he said.

"I do have some talent and some persistence. You don't have to be the best of something to do good things.

"I've been hit with hurdles, beaten and broken but come back more humble yet a more powerful person."

He might be an ordinary man but his life has been extraordinary.