Stethoscope

#13 Member profile: Dr Graeme Killer

It’s 50 years since Dr Graeme Killer AO graduated from the University of Queensland and began his unique medical journey. As the personal doctor to five sitting Australian Prime Ministers, Dr Killer has met many world leaders during his distinguished career. 

But aside from looking after the health of our nation’s chief decision-maker, Dr Killer has also served his country with distinction as a doctor in the RAAF for 24 years. He then went on to use these important insights to look after the welfare of our returned servicemen and women as the long-time Principal Medical Adviser for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

When he sat down with Vicdoc Editor Barry Levinson to reflect on his career, there was certainly no shortage of stories to recall. For Stethoscope, we focus on his time in the PM’s office. For the full interview read the June/July 2018 edition of Vicdoc.

 

How did you become the Prime Minister’s doctor?

In 1988, Prince Andrew and Sarah, Duchess of York (Fergie) came to Australia and I was invited to accompany them on their official visit as their medical practitioner. At the time I was a Senior RAAF Medical Officer. It went well but I never thought much more about it and life returned to normal. Shortly after I retired from the Air Force, I was offered the job in Canberra as the Principal Medical Adviser to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. 

This was around the time Paul Keating became Prime Minister (1991). On his first overseas trip in Indonesia, he became unwell and the doctor who went on the trip decided not to continue in the role. I was asked if I wanted to be the personal physician to Prime Minister Keating.

I met with Paul Keating and then stayed on as doctor to the Prime Minister all the way through to Tony Abbott. Shortly after Sir William Deane became Governor-General and I was asked to fulfil a similar role at Government House. These arrangements continued until the appointment of Sir Peter Cosgrove.

 

How did the Prime Ministers cope with demands of the job and pressure it places on their health?

In this 24/7 nature of politics, the health and wellbeing of politicians and their families is easily forgotten. Over the years that I was the Prime Minister’s doctor, I could see the demands of the office increase. There was a far greater number of visits overseas; a far greater number of international meetings like APEC, ASEAN, G20, G12 and it’s incredibly demanding, physically and mentally. The PM not only has to deal with issues overseas, they still have to deal with issues and crises at home at the same time. The role of the doctor in dealing with this is extremely important. It’s important for the doctor to have a really close relationship with the PM, but equally important that the doctor treats the PM as they would any other patient. The real risk is of under treatment, or even over treatment, if you do see them differently. It's crucial to find the right balance.

In addition, I think being in the military held me in good stead. It gave me a good understanding of government and dealing with prominent and important people. There's no doubt that over the years, the role of Prime Minister's doctor did give me a few challenges, but in medicine we need to expect challenges and they often occur when they're least expected.

 

Brush with terrorism

You’ve counted 191 overseas trips in 20 years working with veterans, Prime Ministers and Governors-General. Any particular ones stand out?

There are two trips to the United States that really stand out – both for completely different reasons.

The first was my brush with terrorism. I was in Washington DC with John Howard at the time of 9/11. I still remember it so clearly. I was sitting in the Prime Minister’s office at the Willard Hotel, which is very close to the White House, and we all looked incredulously at the television as the two planes crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York. It was almost impossible to comprehend and I and others didn’t really know at the time if it was real. Within a space of time, Prime Minister Howard gathered staff and the Australian media together to do a press conference and as he was doing so his US security asked him to stand away from the window as a plane crashed into the Pentagon. If we had looked out the window at the time, we would have seen it happen. We’d been in the Pentagon the day before. Following this, Mr Howard was rushed to the Australian Embassy and a bus was sent for the rest of us. We were all put in the bunker under the Embassy and at that stage we were able to ring our families.

After this, all civil airline flights in the US were cancelled and we couldn’t get home. The President provided John Howard with Air Force Two, which was the aircraft of the Vice President. We flew in Air Force Two to Hawaii and then from there a Qantas flight took us back to Australia.

The overseas visit that was the most enjoyable was John Howard’s last trip as PM to the US. He and George W. Bush were very good friends. He used to refer to John Howard as the ‘Man of Steel’. 

At the end of a big dinner at the White House, all the guests lined up to meet the President, Mrs Bush and Mr and Mrs Howard. When I was introduced to the President as the Prime Minister’s doctor, Mr Bush came up and threw his arms around me and said, ‘Hey doc, what’s his prostate like?’ And I said, ‘Mr President, it’s in good shape, but I can’t tell you any more because it’s medical in confidence’. It brought the house down. On that trip, every bit of hospitality was afforded to us. It was a great recognition of the strong links between Australia and the US and the strong personal links between John Howard and George Bush.

On a trip to Beijing with Dame Quentin Bryce I discussed obesity and health promotion over dinner with the then heir apparent, Xi Jinping, who is now the President.

I met Nelson Mandela in Pretoria, South Africa. He was being given an honourary Order of Australia at the Australian High Commissioner’s residence. I just had to meet him! Of all the people in the world I’ve met, Bill Clinton was the most charismatic. He’d come into a room and it was like the lights were turned on. No-one else has come close to Bill Clinton for sheer charisma. I can see why the ladies liked him!

 

This is an edited version of an interview from the June/July 2018 edition of Vicdoc.

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