Despite currently being one of the busiest people in the country, we were honoured to have Dr Nicholas Coatsworth (85-95) beam into the Goatcher in September to welcome our 2021 scholarship winners to Wesley in a special ceremony. As Deputy Chief Medical Officer of Australia, he joined us by video link from Canberra where he’s helping to lead the Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nicholas was awarded the Philip Goatcher Scholarship for Year 11 and 12 and named College Captain in his final year. After leaving Wesley, Nicholas worked as a doctor in some of the world’s most war-torn countries, including Congo-Brazzaville, Chad and the Darfur region of Sudan.
Having done his work abroad, Nicholas returned home to become an infectious diseases and respiratory medicine specialist at Canberra Hospital, a step that paved the way to his current position. We were delighted to have him make time to congratulate our scholarship students.
This is an edited transcript of what he shared with our community.
Tell us about your experience at Wesley.
It was school and there were ups and downs, as there always are. There are things that I remember like they happened yesterday and – like all of us – there are a few things I would prefer to forget. But it was my school and I always felt that affinity toward it. You would see students in the years ahead of you and they were just great role models – I think that was one of the best experiences about Wesley.
What values did you learn at Wesley that put you in good stead for being thrust into the national limelight this year?
There’s something that Wesley embodies, or at least gives the opportunity for students to embody, and that is a real sense of service back to the community. When I was in Year 8, we had the opportunity to go out and visit nursing homes and you would sit with the residents for several hours. You’d sort of go in with a bit of trepidation, but you sit down and you’d have these wonderful conversations with elderly West Australians. I think that fostered a sense of service to back to the community – it’s in your subconscious.
Did you develop other skills at Wesley that have helped you during the pandemic?
I guess the hardest thing has been communicating clearly with the public. Five years of debating at Wesley helped with that! In fact, when we won the Inter-School Debating competition it was a bit of a lean sporting year for Wesley. It was the only thing we won. I remember very clearly sitting on the back seat of a bus with Ben Cousins (90-95) and Aaron Hewitt (90-95). They were sort of lamenting the fact that we hadn’t won anything in sport. I said: ‘Yes we have, we won the Debating!’ And that was the only debate I ever lost. Ben and Aaron could not be convinced that debating was actually worthy of being called a sport.
Was there any event or person who kind of persuaded you to pursue a career in medicine?
There was, but it might surprise a few people. It was the last day of school, I was in Year 12 and had hung up the jacket for the last time. Someone from my class was skipper for the night – he was driving us around in a 1956 Morris Minor and going down St. Georges Terrace when someone went through a red light and we had a car crash. We didn’t have seat belts on, so I ended up in Royal Perth Hospital.
Yes, but I had no idea what I was going to do for my university education. I’d applied for a couple of things – medicine, law, engineering. But a young doctor stitched up my head in the emergency department. And so, while I was concussed, I thought ‘this is a good idea, I might try medicine’. When I got the offer, I started and felt lucky because some people start on a career or vocation and find out it’s not for them. So, I do consider myself lucky with the choice, but that – in all honesty – is how it happened.
Can you describe the experience of helping defend Australia from the COVID-19 pandemic?
Well, I’m just one cog in a wheel and there are so many people around the country who are involved. In fact, it’s the whole medical community that has made the effort. If you look at any sort of public health emergency, you’re not going to be successful unless you take the community with you. So, I felt that my job, perhaps, was to try and convey confidence to the Australian community to help people understand COVID-19 in as clear a way as I could.
You’ve led many emergency medical relief teams in less fortunate countries. Which has been your favourite, but also the most confronting in terms of your work?
That’s a hard question. The favourite and most confronting was probably Darfur in Sudan. Wesley has a really interesting motto: By daring & by doing. It means that you do have to put yourself in situations at some point in your life where you feel very uncomfortable. Everybody has their limits, and I think I probably found mine in Darfur – it was a very hard place to work. The pressure of working in that sort of environment was probably the most satisfying but also the most difficult experience I had with Médecins Sans Frontières.
In Year 11 and Year 12 you were the recipient of the Philip Goatcher Scholarship. What impact did that have on you?
I think in many ways it had a bigger impact on the family. There were difficult times in the early 1990s. Interest was at 17%, Dad lost his job as a senior manager at Qantas and then he didn’t know how to do anything else, so he had to go in as a sort of reception person. Mum had to go back to work as a property manager. So, it made a massive difference. I mean, we always heard about, you know, bills were late, school fees were late, so the ability to help Mum and Dad out a bit – we felt that.
Do you have any advice you’d give to incoming scholarship recipients?
When you leave Wesley and you are entering into young adulthood you’ll either start your first job or go to university. The pursuit of excellence is something that you have achieved so far by winning your own scholarship, and you’ll be able to continue that throughout your lives. Don’t forget the experiences that Wesley teaches you – often they’ll come back in your subconscious. If you can look back on your experience and put as much of it as possible in your pursuit of excellence and service in your careers, you’ll all do very well.
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