Posted on 28 April, 2016

I am no Charles Wooley, but I am humbled to be able to tell Dr Ian Nicholson’s story.

To paint a picture; Dr Nicholson has received an Order of Australia, he is one of Open Heart International’s most lively program participants with more than 30 trips under his belt, he is an Open Heart International Management Committee member, he represents Open Heart International’s interests at the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, and he has been interviewed by 60 Minutes to tell Open Heart International’s story.


The story is still a topic of conversation for Open Heart International (OHI) volunteer members a year later (view here), who kept bringing it up at dinners in Rwanda and reminding Dr Nicholson of his TV cameo.

When asked what Dr Nicholson thinks about the 60 Minutes program following him and the OHI team around for six days in Fiji, he says he is happy with the representation of himself and OHI.

“It was quite accurate; it captured me quite well and it showed what I was like rather than being ‘make believe’,” he said.

“They made an extreme effort to talk to everyone because I insisted I didn’t want it to be a story about me; it was supposed to be a story about the organisation and the team and everyone so they agreed for me to do the story telling.

“Unfortunately the day the story aired Mick Fanning was attacked by a shark, which meant a lot of people were cut from the story; they said when ‘it bleeds, it leads’.”

It’s obvious Ian has contributed to significant services to medicine in the field of cardiac surgery and through volunteer outreach programs (as written on his Order of Australia citation), but above everything else he considers himself a family man.

One night at dinner when discussing the 60 Minutes story, he makes a point to tell me his family is central to him and above everything else being a good father to his three children Andrew, Luke, and Emma, and a supportive husband to his wife Melissa, is important.

“My wife and my family put up with a hell of a lot,” Ian, who will go on four OHI trips this year, says.

“Melissa is an anaesthetist and she gave up work for our middle boy, who is autistic, and she stays at home full time and looks after the family.

“She used to come (on trips with OHI) as the training anaesthetist – she came to PNG in 1995.”

Perhaps that is why on his latest trip to Rwanda the heart surgeon brought with him his eldest son Andrew for the first time, on Andrew’s 16thbirthday.

“He (Andrew) just wanted to see what it is all about …. And spend some time with his father,” he says.

“I don’t talk about work, but I talk about these trips a lot.


“It has been good (having him here), but it has been important to talk about what he has seen during the day – he (Andrew) basically volunteers that (information).

“He says, ‘this kid lives such a distance in a hut somewhere and others are from town’, and I think he is learning life is not simple for a lot of people, which is what my whole point of letting him come was all about; to get more worldly about things.”

Ian thinks this is an important message.

“We are so privileged at home,” he says.

“Our medical system is really good, even though people bitch and moan about it, it is free and if you have private health you can get more.”

Growing up in Western Sydney, moving schools three times and receiving a free education has humbled Ian.


“We had no money growing up,” he says.

“I didn’t even know people lived on the water or went skiing every year for a holiday and when I went to university and I met all these people (who did) I thought that was amazing, as well as the fact they all had cars.

“I think studying for free is a reason I try and give back, because I feel I owe something.”

It would be fair to say Ian is a modest and family-oriented man, but there is no denying his medical skills as well as his reputation as a “speedy” surgeon, who even perplexed some of our international members in Kigali on how quick he can operate.

“I am left handed and I started surgery left handed, then some colleagues said you should learn to do it right handed because when you go overseas to places such as America you will go to a different hospital they will think you are clumsy,” he says.

“And they might not let you do things or take longer so I learnt how to do surgery with my right hand and I went home and I practiced.

“So I can sew things and do coronaries right handed, but I can’t eat soup right handed – it goes all over me.

“It just means both hands are doing something; it doesn’t make me better than people it is just faster.”

Ian explains he also operates on adults and children every single day of the week, which adds to his speed and agility.

“I am sewing all the time,” he says.

“But that makes me bad at other things like meetings and chatting to people and presenting at conferences, which are all important but never really satisfied me.”

Dr Nicholson was first involved with OHI as a surgical registrar in 1994 when he travelled to Fiji and has since travelled to Cambodia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, Solomon Islands, Tanzania, Tonga, and Vanuatu.

“I really enjoyed working with the surgeons there (Fiji) then I started to go to Fiji every year rather than have a holiday,” he says.

“I thought I was making a difference, whereas in the big teaching hospital you can feel like you aren’t because there are so many demands on you.

“I was a little bit disillusioned when I was working as a doctor in a big hospital because it wasn’t very personal and I didn’t understand how you could function in that environment as a non-communicative doctor- you could just operate on people and not talk to anyone.

“The human part of it I enjoy, so I started to get my kicks out of this (the trips).”

Motivated by the instant fulfilment you get when you see a heart working, Dr Nicholson says he picked cardiac surgery because hearts “have to work”.


“I did lots of surgery, but I think it (cardiac surgery) is more exciting than other kinds of surgery,” he says.

“Orthopaedics is important so people can walk and other things we take for granted, but I didn’t see that.

“For heart surgery there is this instant gratification when it works and then there is the latter gratification when they come back and they are feeling better.”

You can expect to see and hear more about Dr Nicholson working and operating overseas because he intends to do it until he retires.

“You have to work outside your comfort zone- you have to do things you might not think are achievable, but then learn that they are,” he says.

“It makes working at home so easy; a piece of cake compared to here (East Africa).

“I can’t sit still and read a book anyway- I would rather be doing something than nothing and I can’t see how people can do that.

“I don’t want a life where I had wished I had done more or different.”


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