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A tribute to...

Dr Kevin Walter Vandeleur

Published: Sat 14th Aug 2021

"Kevin loved his patients and they loved him in return."

- by Jenny Stanton

As the first anniversary of the passing of long-time Brisbane ophthalmologist and former Innisfail resident Dr Kevin Walter Vandeleur nears, his wife Jenny Stanton has shared a little of the story of Kevin's life.

For Kevin, the story began in Innisfail, North Queensland, when he was born into a family of five boys to parents Margaret (nee Dunne) and Michael Vandeleur.

Together with his brothers Michael, Peter, Paul and Vince, Kevin grew up in Innisfail, going to Mass on Sundays and hunting, fishing and enjoying weekends away at the family holiday house at Flying Fish Point.

Kevin's mother, Margaret, was an accomplished pianist and homemaker, while his father, Michael was a businessman, entrepreneur and solicitor.

Michael was also a Nudgee College old boy and Kevin grew up reading the school magazines and other literature that arrived from Nudgee at the family home in Mourilyan Road.

While Kevin dreamt of following in his dad's footsteps and boarding at Nudgee, the war got in the way and Kevin, his mum and his brothers were forced to evacuate from Innisfail to Charters Towers for a while and the boys went to school there instead.

After the war, Michael won a ballot to take ownership of the 2700 square kilometre cattle lease, Camfield Station, when the station was cut off from the Victoria Downs Station in the Northern Territory.

With enrolments closed at Nudgee, Kevin and his younger brother Mick were enrolled at Downlands College in Toowoomba instead, and it was there they completed their senior years.

Jenny said Mick sometimes cheekily reminded family that he was awarded the Logic prize in Year 12 ahead of his friend Jed Brennan - later Sir Gerard Brennan who went on to become the Chief Justice of Australia.

For Kevin, friendships made at Downlands carried with him for the rest of his life. 

Jenny said he was proud to be an "Old Boy" and he attended the annual Mass and reunion dinners until the year before he died. 

It was also at Downlands that Kevin met his lifetime friend Dr Louis Pigott. Kevin and Louis went on to study medicine together at the University of Queensland in 1944 and shared rooms at St Leo's College during their 6-year medical training. 

They remained best friends throughout their careers as doctors and Ophthalmic Surgeons and Jenny said they were in regular communication until they both passed away within a year of each other, having lived into their 93rd years.

Jenny said for Kevin's other three brothers, when Nudgee College reopened they went there for their senior years - each going on to become successful in their own right. 

Taken by Jenny in Sydney 1978
Taken by Jenny in Sydney 1978

"Peter entered the Seminary and was sent to Rome where he studied at Propaganda de Fide before returning to Australia and spending the next 54 years serving the Cairns Diocese. 

"Paul established and managed the family holdings at Camfield and was known to have a significant rapport with the indigenous workers who were longtime loyal employees. 

"Vince returned to Innisfail to practice as a solicitor for 54 years. He had studied law at the University of Queensland and also in Italy and in 2005 was awarded an OAM for his services to the Law and to the Innisfail community."

Kevin's medical journey included seven postgraduate training years at the Brisbane General Hospital under the guidance of Medical Superintendent Dr Aubrey Pye. 

He completed training as a General Surgeon in 1955 and decided to complete further training as an Ophthalmic Surgeon - a role he continued and was blessed to work in for nearly sixty years on Wickham Terrace.

Jenny said the training programs in Australia for specialist doctors in the 1950's were not so  structured and comprehensive as they soon became, but "fortunately for Kevin he was very much an autodidact and he remembered performing his first cataract operation after reading a text book".

It wasn't textbooks alone that helped Kevin to master his skills though with Jenny noting he had been assisted in his training by the late Dr Peter B English, Dr James Hart and Dr Alan Henry.

She said another friend, Dr Graeme Readshaw (now deceased), assisted Kevin with his comprehensive notes on retinal detachment operations after returning from a three-month fellowship to the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital under the tutelage of Professer Gerard Crock. His learnings inspired Kevin who went on to pioneer laser photocoagulation treatment and fluorescein angiography in his private practice in Brisbane in the late 1970's. 

Jenny said the detachment operation Kevin developed in the late 1960's is still being used in Brisbane today.

"At the peak of Kevin's surgical career in the late 1970s, and beyond he worked closely with his surgical assistant Dr Terry Carey," she said. "In 1978, Dr Carey reviewed the last 100 cases of retinal detachment operations that they had performed. Their surgical interventions restored sight, in the upper 90th percentile of patients. 

"This was a reflection of figures reported in the international literature and of successful detachment operations performed at centers such as Duke and Johns Hopkins Universities and the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami, Florida.

Kevin with Jenny at her graduation from the University of NSW
Kevin with Jenny at her graduation from the University of NSW

One of the highlights of Kevin's career came later in his life in 2001, after a chance meeting with Dr John Kearney OAM in a Tedder Avenue shop.

John was a volunteer Surgeon for many Pacific Island communities and was planning a contingent of medical staff to travel to Kiribati in Oceania to perform cataract surgery. John invited Kevin to join the group and he was tasked with triaging the patients before surgery. On many trips Kevin spent 12-hour days working in the Pacific Island sun testing the patients as they waited on benches outside the hospital. During the first flight to Kiribati, Kevin recalled that the Air Nauru pilots invited the surgeons onto the flight deck and when they landed, a musical band of islanders (all in bare feet) lined the tarmac to greet the Doctors. 

"Kevin loved his patients and they loved him in return. Although he was known to be always running late, Kevin never rushed a consultation and gave every patient his time and the benefit of his wisdom, ophthalmic and medical experience.

"At his funeral service a long-term patient, Mr Reginald Staines, spoke of Kevin's kindness and friendship towards him, his brother Kenneth and his late mother Edith who had been Kevin's second patient when he commenced practice as an Eye Surgeon on Wickham Terrace in 1958."

After retiring from surgical practice, Kevin developed a successful medico-legal practice and continued writing complex medico-legal reports for the large law firms until he was 90 years of age. 

Jenny said Kevin had a fall resulting in hip replacement surgery while she was taking a short overseas break and they retired permanently from Highgate Hill to their unit on the Gold Coast in 2017 for ease with Kevin's rehabilitation and care. They were still living on the Gold Coast when Kevin died.

She said after Kevin died, a more junior student from Downlands college, Dr Leigh Atkinson AO, who became a fellow surgeon and colleague at the Princess Alexandra Hospital, had told her that Kevin was "definitely one of the true personalities on Wickham Terrace".  Kevin's colleague, patient and childhood friend from Innisfail the late Professor Sam Mellick said "Kevin was a doctor's doctor and a man's man".

"Kevin was also a true romantic," Jenny said. "On the last Valentine's Day before he died, he sent me a bunch of red roses with a card saying - 'In this season of love, thank you for keeping me alive'. Jenny said Kevin was a man for all seasons.

While he was known for his work, Kevin was also known for his quirks.

"There was a bit of madness and eccentricity in Kevin's personality," Jenny said. 

"He could rarely be persuaded to throw anything out and his main interest outside work was television and radio. 

"He always had at least three radios around his neck or attached to his clothes - all tuned to different stations, while television surfing between CNN, the BBC and Fox news. 

"This was always as well as having both a cooling air conditioner on and a heating fan.

On the morning of the 9/11 attacks, Jenny remembers Kevin calling her to see if she had heard the news. At the time, Jenny said she was studying in the Bond University Law library and when she told Kevin she knew little about Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda, Kevin spent the next 30 minutes giving her a detailed and comprehensive tutorial on both topics. Jenny and Kevin each had 2 bachelor's degrees. 2 master's degrees and 3 other post-graduate degrees.

Kevin was twice married in his 93-years and is survived by Jenny (his wife of 25 years) and his six children from his first marriage to Julia Tanks and 11 grandchildren.

Dr Kevin Walter Vandeleur at an eye surgeons conference (2005)
Dr Kevin Walter Vandeleur at an eye surgeons conference (2005)

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