Surgeon makes the cut as new Dean

Written by Tabitha Carvan

If you haven’t had the chance to meet the new Dean of the ANU College of Health and Medicine, Professor Russell Gruen, you can start by watching his TED Talk. It’s about his work as a trauma surgeon, and his efforts to change what he calls “the dying process” for patients in his care.

Maybe you, like me, would wonder why someone who can save a person’s life and call it just another day at work, would swap the operating theatre for the hallways of university administration. If I had trained for many years to save a life, I would want to be saving lives, and enjoying the satisfaction of doing so.

But the roles of surgeon and Dean are “not as disparate as they seem on face value”, Professor Gruen says. “They’re just different expressions of a common theme."

“At heart I’ve always been an academic who believes that through science, knowledge translation and inspired action, the world can be a better place.

"I have pursued that through a professional career in surgery, but it’s just as important, or maybe even more important, to influence all the disciplines and the systems which enable many future patients, many future academics, many future clinicians, and many future leaders to be better at what they do.

“A trauma surgeon improves the immediate outcome for one patient at a time. Improving the systems in which we work, and the ability for health professionals to perform at their best, is also about outcomes, albeit on different scales and timeframes.

“It’s joyful to be able to work in both.”

This dedication—to saving the patient in front of him while also working to prevent future patients from finding themselves in the same terrible circumstances—is the hallmark of Professor Gruen’s career.

It’s there in his decision to pause his clinical training to instead move to West Arnhem Land to conduct PhD research into the barriers Indigenous people in remote communities face in accessing clinical services; it’s why he is a pioneer of the Global Surgery movement to improve “the needs of the five billion people on the planet who can’t get access to a safe appendectomy, or an emergency caesarean section, or management of an open fracture when they need it”; it’s in the pages of his new book about the Victorian State Trauma System’s ‘penicillin-esque’ reduction of car accident deaths – thanks to system change.

And it’s why he’s here at ANU.

“The ANU College of Health and Medicine has the extraordinary opportunity to be a global leader in health and health systems.

“In addition to the extraordinary scientific and educational prowess in the College, there is ambition, enormous capability, and many untapped opportunities for growth—in interdisciplinary and translational research, inter-professional learning, and connections with government, international agencies, and the private sector, to name a few—that impact on health in Australia and the region.

“ANU would be better positioned than almost any university I can think of to capitalise on these opportunities, and I want to be part of that journey.”

Professor Gruen is moving with his family from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, ranked by QS as the world’s top young university, to the best university in Australia, but it won’t be his first time at ANU.

“I was actually a Summer School student in 1985,” he remembers.

“That was my first time in Canberra. Sir Gustav Nossal and The Hon Barry Jones were two of the teachers, and I was so excited to be here. On day one, I was walking to the first session, reading the program very intently - and I walked straight into one of those ponds around the Shine Dome. I spent the rest of my first day in soggy jeans.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have told you that story,” he says chuckling.

But if you haven’t had a chance to meet the new Dean yet, maybe that gives you a better image of him than the TED Talk.

“There’s nothing superhuman about being a trauma surgeon,” he told me when I tried to suggest his life-saving skills were going to waste. “We are simply trained to focus on what's important, work as a team, expect the unexpected and perform under pressure. And they’re valuable life skills in any context.”

 

In semester one, Professor Gruen will be visiting each school in the College to meet staff and students and to learn more about their education and research activities. Feel free to reach out, you can contact him at dean.chm@anu.edu.au