11 June 2009
Eulogy at Professor Chris O'Brien's State Funeral - St Mary's Cathedral - Sydney

To Gail and to members of the family, to friends one and all of this great man, Chris O’Brien.

From time to time there are those who reach out and touch our souls, who shake us from our inward preoccupations. Who cause us to once again look up and then to look beyond ourselves. And then to realise afresh the simple, yet ancient wisdom of Saint Francis that it is in giving that we receive.

Lives such as these have a single distinguishing feature. They cause the rest of us to change. Chris O’Brien was such a man. Not just great company, of course he was. Not just a diligent colleague, he was that in spades. Not just a loyal friend, he was the best you could have. Not just a loving father, for his children are living and eloquent testimony of his extraordinary love for them. And not just a devoted life partner, because rarely have I known a relationship so tender, so close, so supportive as his with Gail.

For Chris O’Brien was all of these things and as the psalmists would say, ‘pressed down and running over’. But beyond all these things, and any one of them would be sufficient for any other man’s eulogy, Chris O’Brien reached out beyond himself and fundamentally changed lives.

He did so of course with his hands, surgeon’s hands, hands of great skill. And so he saved the lives of many.

But more critically, he did so with his heart and in a profoundly human and profoundly spiritual way. He did not deny his suffering, he embraced it. And then he deployed it. He sought to capture the nation’s imagination on how as a nation we could do better, much better, much, much better in fighting a disease which afflicts tens of thousands of our fellow Australians every year. A disease which in one way or another has touched the lives of practically everyone gathered today in this great cathedral in Sydney.

And Chris’s simple refrain was this - we can do better, we must do better and we will do better.

But beyond being the visionary that he was, he was also an intensely practical man. He painstakingly explained to me the first time I met him what integrated or comprehensive cancer care actually meant, or why it simply made sense to co-locate the scientists, the technicians, the clinicians, the carers and of course most importantly the patients themselves because the creativity of this virtuous circle of collaboration would of itself produce the best possible results.

And of course, Chris was right. But not only was he right, he has had an effect. He got inside not just the head of the nation, but the heart of the nation as well. He also got inside the head and the heart of his Prime Minister because of the compelling and overwhelming eloquence of the testimony of his life.

And so what are the effects? Well Chris, you had a big effect. This year the Australian Government announced $1.3 billion for the new National Cancer Initiative with integrated comprehensive cancer care at its heart, integrated cancer care across the nation.

That, Chris, is your life’s legacy. Because without you mate, it wouldn’t have happened, it’s as simple as that. And here in Sydney, the project nearest and dearest to his heart, Lifehouse at the RPA, it will be built. No ifs, no buts, no maybes, it will be built. And the building will start by year’s end if I have to drive the bulldozer myself.

I asked him whether we could call this Centre the Chris O’Brien Centre. He flatly said: “No.” I said: “We’re paying the bills, so who are you to object?” Again he said: “No”. To which I say today, tough luck mate because this is a conversation I will now have Gail and members of the family and our friends at RPA.

Last Thursday evening, it was my privilege to spend a little time with Chris and his family just before he died. I read to him his citation for his appointment as an Officer of the Order of Australia. Her Excellency, the Governor General had already made special arrangements to confer that honour on him at Admiralty House this week. That was not to be.

I do not know if Chris heard the citation as I read it, but I felt that he gently squeezed my hand as I did. Here lies a man who touched my life. Here lies a man who touched the nation’s soul and we, the nation, Australia, are the richer for him having lived and having worked among us.

Farewell my friend.