The heart of the matter

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It is July 1991, a Thursday and not long past sunrise. Sky clear and the morning air mild. Looks like being one of those sunny winter days to die for as a brand new Mercedes 500SL coupe snakes its way up Spit Road. Progress in the morning city-bound peak hour is as slow as pouring honey. The driver, renowned heart surgeon Victor Chang, is heading to work atSt Vincent’s Hospital, having left his Clontarf home on Middle Harbour just after 7.30am.

The 54-year-old doctor is wearing a grey suit, blue shirt, navy tie with gold colouring, blue socks and slip-on shoes. He is later than normal this day, having indulged in a rare leisurely breakfast with his wife, Ann. “He was always up early,” she later told The Sydney Morning Herald. “He had a cup of tea on the run and was out the door. But this day he sat and we were talking … It was so unusual for us”.

Nearing Mosman Junction, a clapped-out Toyota Corona sedan, which had been tailing Chang for several kilometres since crossing the Spit Bridge, veered suddenly and sideswiped the doctor’s Merc. The two cars edged to the left-hand lane and pulled into Lang Street to inspect any damage. Maybe exchange insurance details? Or at least that’s what Chang probably thought. The two occupants of the Toyota had other ideas. Both in financial distress, they’d concocted a hare-brained scheme months before to extort money from the pioneering surgeon.

Why choose Chang? They had simply picked his face at random from a magazine photo featuring ‘notable’ Asians who had ‘made it good’ in Australia. The doctor soon knew this was no ‘accident’ when the assailants spoke to him by name in Mandarin. A physical argument ensued as they tried to bundle him into their car.

“Call the police; they have guns,” Chang is reported to have pleaded with a passerby. The petrified commuter, on his way to work, heard the instruction through his Walkman headphones and headed straight to the nearest phone box. Before he’d rounded the corner of Lang Street (less than thirty metres from the scuffle) a pistol was pulled in the melee and two .38 calibre bullets were fired, seconds apart.

“The first shot didn’t break a tooth,” noted Detective-Sergeant Dennis O’Toole in a press conference a few days later. It entered near the right cheek, exiting below the right ear. “Dr Chang would have woken up and apart from probably a mark on his cheek, that would have been it”. The second shot – at point blank range – pierced the right temple and passed through the brain. Chang was dead before the bullet lodged in the top of his skull.

The desperadoes fled and 16 witnesses emerged over the following minutes, including a Doctor William Hock from a nearby medical centre on Military Road. Hock immediately saw Chang’s widely dilated eyes and suspected the worse. He instinctively grabbed hold of a wrist in search of a pulse: none. He checked the pupil for a reaction to light. There were no signs of life.

The national outpouring of grief and rage and disbelief that followed was immense. The very public face of the St Vincent’s Hospital Heart Transplant Unit, a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC), recipient of the highest award in medicine (the Honoris Causa), feted by governments across Asia for his humanitarian and medical exchange programs, a surgeon of colossal talent and drive, had been brutally murdered. Why, why, why? screamed newspaper headlines. People from all walks of life from right across the country were genuinely shocked and saddened, numb with the incomprehension of it all. Bad things like this didn’t happen to good people like that!

Speaking the following week at the eulogy for her slain father, 22-year-old Vanessa Chang said: “Dad was a real character with his jet-black hair, the button nose and bushy brows, the gold rimmed glasses and his famous beanie. He was only five foot eight, but his personality towered over that, perhaps because he was such a charismatic and strong person. He wasn’t forceful but he had power and great resolve, and ambition beyond belief. Nothing was too far from reach; anything was possible. My father once explained the reason he was a successful surgeon. He said his hands were so small that he was able to get into places where no other surgeons could reach. Of course, dad was joking, as he always did when he couldn’t give someone a serious answer. I guess what I am trying to say is that he was a supreme optimist.”

That he was accorded a state funeral, a very rare honour for a civilian, is testament to Chang’s untiring contribution, not only to heart research, but his philanthropic efforts both in Australian and Asia. His ascension in the local media and medical fraternity rested on many notable, but arguably two defining incidents.

The first was his second transplant patient, a fourteen-year-old Tamworth school girl, Fiona Coote. Her very ‘public recovery’ in 1984 brought enormous exposure to Chang’s team and their pioneering work. Hardly a week went by without some mention in the press of Fiona’s progress. She was very articulate and very photogenic. The exposure generated great public interest in the lifesaving work of the St Vincent’s team that Chang headed. And with the exposure came donations not just of funds but organs too. The money could  hopefully realise a long-held ambition of Chang’s; that was, establishing a dedicated, world leading institute of cardio thoracic research.

This dream was bolstered by the second major incident that contributed to Chang’s increasing public profile. He performed a heart bypass operation on Kerry Packer and refused to let the nation’s richest man pay for it. Suffice to say Packer repaid the debt many times over by not only personally contributing to Victor’s fundraising efforts, but utilising his vast business contacts and persuasive skills in convincing others to ‘chip in’. The schmoozing of corporate and political Australia and the pressure that befell Chang as the media face of the St Vincent’s transplant unit was a far cry from his modest, very humble, yet strife-torn beginnings.

Jen Qien (Victor’s Chinese name) was born in Shanghai in 1936. The next year his family fled to the Burmese capital Rangoon via Hong Kong in the wake of the Japanese invasion of China. But when the bombs began raining down on Burma, the Changs (Victor had a baby sister by then) joined thousands of war-time refugees who settled and saw out the second world war in the Chinese province of Sichaun. After the war the family repatriated to Hong Kong. Not yet a teenager Victor then helped nurse his ailing mother who’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. Upon her death in 1948 (she was only 33-years-old), the young Victor’s career path was as good as set: It was to be a life in medicine.

But political upheaval had a habit of interrupting the Chang family’s aspirations. Unsettled by the emergence and ethos of the Communist Party in China in the late 1940s, Victor’s father, Audrey, sent his two children, unaccompanied, and with limited English between them, to stay with extended family in Sydney. It was 1951. Victor would not see his father for another ten years.

In a testament to his intelligence and drive, Victor completed secondary schooling at Christian Brothers Lewisham and in 1956 commenced studying medicine at Sydney University. Multiple part-time jobs and a Commonwealth scholarship saw him graduate with a double degree in medicine and surgery with honours. During the final years of his studies when it was certain that cardio thoracic surgery was his calling (he had previously contemplated pursuing neurology), Victor came into contact with Doctor Mark Shanahan, a leading Sydney heart surgeon at the time. As Shanahan recalls in Ron Stephenson’s Murder of a Hero: “I gave this talk to the residents one evening in October 1963 and at the end, Dr Chang came along and introduced himself to me. He was a junior resident; his first year as a doctor. He was an unusual looking fellow. He had this little fresh face and quite big ears. He said to me: ‘I’d really like to do what you’ve done.'”

True to his word, Victor sought international experience in heart surgery research. First in England (where he met and married one of his patients, Ann Simmons) and then at the famous Mayo Clinic in the United States. He returned to Australia in 1972 highly qualified and highly sought after. He took up a senior surgeon’s position under Dr Harry Windsor in the cardiac unit at St Vincent’s. Then, when the Federal Government sought to set up the Australian National Heart Transplant Unit in 1983, St Vincent’s got the nod with Victor appointed the specialist unit’s first director. In February the next year, his team performed their first heart transplant. Two months later along came a very sick Fiona Coote, the pretty Tamworth teenager whose recovery from two, not one, transplants, catapulted Victor and the lifesaving work his team performed into the national media spotlight.

You’d be excused for thinking Victor had little time for much else outside a hospital, given his dedicated work ethic and the constant media exposure each transplant seemed to invoke. (It was ground-breaking news back in the mid 80s: today St Vincent’s performs on average one heart transplant a week, depending on available organs.) When he finished surgery and was done with patient’s rounds, Victor would often withdraw to a laboratory at Prince Henry Hospital in Little Bay where he tinkered alongside a team of research technicians developing an artificial heart. The device, while experimental, was intended to keep seriously ill heart patients alive while waiting for a transplant.

Cars however, were his ‘real escape’. “They provided a chance for Dad to get away from it all; they were his hobby and his opportunity to relax,” writes Vanessa Chang in A Tribute to my Father in 2001. “Cars gave him an enormous amount of enjoyment. He was an avid reader of motor magazines and would study the statistics as though he were about to take an exam. He would read up on high performance cars such as Porsches, one or two of which he eventually owned.”

Victor and his uncle even restored a fire-engine red MG-TF from a dilapidated wreck into a pristine automobile. He took advanced driving lessons to better manage the enormous horsepower underfoot in many of the cars he owned. The good doctor was not averse to uttering, “I’m rushing to hospital for an emergency,” when stopped by police for speeding.

As Vanessa recounts in her Tribute, one close friend who shared the same passion for cars as her father was Michael Munroe. The two met by chance in the casualty ward at St Vincent’s Hospital when Munroe was waiting to pick up a friend being treated. And so began a short-lived but intense relationship that shared interests between otherwise complete strangers can often generate. “He loved the feel, touch and pleasure that driving gave him. Whether driving or being driven, he was able to switch off and admire the function of the car. I saw this as an extension of his profession; knowing where he was going, in complete control, and that the power was his. It gave him a selfish satisfaction that he needed as a balance to his unselfish dedication to his career.”

The very last car Victor owned was the new Mercedes 500SL coupe he climbed into that July day in 1991 and set off to work in.

Progress in the ensuing criminal investigation kept Victor on front pages for more than a year, culminating on Christmas Eve 1992, when two Malay-Chinese men, Chiew Seng Liew and Philip Choon Tee Lim were found guilty of his murder. Acting Justice Slattery said the pair, in taking the life of an eminent surgeon in such senseless circumstances, deserved the “severest of sentences”. They received 26 and 24 years’ jail respectively. With good behaviour however, Lim, who was more accomplice than conspirator, could be free by November 2009.

In the immediate years following her husband’s death, Ann Chang set about establishing a fundraising committee to try and fulfill Victor’s long-held vision for a world-class cardiac research institute. She was helped in time, not only by her and Victor’s three children (Vanessa, Matthew and Marcus) but also by St Vincent’s colleagues, various politicians, business leaders and several private patrons. Their grand plans came to a head in 1995 when then Prime Minister Paul Keating – on behalf of the Federal Government – and Kerry Packer each contributed $3 million to establish the Victor Chang Foundation. At the launch, Packer said: “I don’t know what to say about Victor, except that when I heard Victor had been shot, I cried, and I don’t cry often. He was an extraordinary man, and he was a man that, when he left, the world missed him. Many of us when we go, we’re not going to be missed. Victor was.”

Postscript: Thirteen years after that heartfelt launch and with $80 million dollars cash raised, the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in Liverpool Street, Darlinghurst, was officially opened on the fourth of September 2008 by the Foundation’s patron, CrownPrincess Mary of Denmark.

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SOURCES AND FURTHER READING

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