Dr John Gilligan '54

Written on the 2 May 2018 by Old Collegians Association

Dr John Gilligan AO

Excerpt from  Rostrevor Magazine

Dr John Gilligan AO ('54) is a Rostrevor old collegian who is an intensive care specialist. Commonly known as 'Fred', a nickname acquired in university days, he played a major part in initiating the South Australian intensive care medical retrieval service in the I 970s. This provided specialist airborne teams. using helicopter, Royal Flying Doctor and international medevac aircraft and has undertaken thousands of missions throughout Australia and overseas. He recently retired from the Royal Adelaide Hospital as Director of the service. The ROCA wish him well in retirement.

Dr John (Fred) Gilligan AO.

"I attended Rostrevor from 1948- 54, during the benign sovereignty of Br Charles Alphonsus Mogg. This era saw the first wave of boys of New Australian families (displaced persons from post war Europe) who came to Rostrevor. In Year 7, Brother Howard ('Pippy') was confronted with a number of such boys. With his limited resources he hit on the idea of introducing them to the English language by getting my classmates and I to take turns in reading to them. One boy, Sigitas Martinkus, was later to receive the Leaving Honours prize in English and graduated in Medicine with me.
The school at that time was clearly multicultural, a word that was only 10 come into the vernacular 30 years later: in addition to a predominantly Anglo­ Celtic population, there were boys of Italian. Greek, Lithuanian, Polish, Aboriginal, Chinese and Singaporean background, and possibly others. This perhaps explains why my schoolmates and I, accustomed to such variety, were intrigued at the university by the initially intolerant attitude of some students from schools with largely Anglo-Saxon student population s and who had not encountered such diversity.

In Year 7 the seeds of Medicine were first planted in my mind by Br 'Pip' Howard, who taught us the elements of human anatomy and physiology from a St John Ambulance first aid book. 'Pip' was a formative influence. as a teacher of Christian Doctrine but also in later years, of languages, especially English. While the sciences were vital. I would contend that the background in the English language and literature was perhaps the single most useful subject we studied.

From the 1954 Annual, Fifth XVIII (left 10 right)
Back Row: D Quirke, B Tinney, P Manoel, P Papps, K Cavanagh. E Sando, A Waugh.

Middle Row: M Hannigan, W Fennell. P Coughlin. D S1aun1on, J Hutchins, E Faulkner. J Molan. B Fahey.
Front Row: J White house, R O'Malley J Gilligan. P Frost (Capt.). B Hewton, R Broad, W Condon.

The school year was packed with academic, cultural and sporting activities. In sport, my activity was modest but academic achievements, while not outstanding. were consistently successful. Also, many would remember Br 'Hee· Gurr and the famous choir and the symphony concerts at Adelaide Town Hall to which he introduced us. School cadets were obligatory, and I found I was a tolerably good rifle shot, being in various marksmanship teams, and eventually I rose to the rank of Under­ Officer. A senior cadet officer was Peter Phillips. later to have a distinguished military career, serving with distinction in Vietnam and rising finally to the rank of Major General. Other boys at the College during this era pursued a wide variety of careers: they included Nerio Ferraro (Industry and Norwood SANFL Club); Michael Shanahan AM (Agricultural Management); John O'Loughlin (awarded AO for services to Obstetrics and Gynaecology); Justice Kevin Duggan AM, Kevin Borick QC, Ken McCarthy and John Melville (Law); Professor Brendon Kearney AM (Medical Administration; Elkin Reilly (Sport and Aboriginal Affairs); David David AC (craniofacial surgery); Pat and Reg Pak-Poy (Engineering and Medicine); Robert Ritson (Politics); John Marks, Noel Guerin, and John Mcinnes (Christian Brothers). 

During Year 10 I was puzzled to find myself awarded a cadetship in metallurgy. Br ' Bud' McCarthy (Year 11 teacher) muttered 'We should be able to find you something more suitable. Gilligan· and I was fortunate enough 10 win a Commonwealth Scholarship in Medicine that year. After Leaving Honours (Year 12) I enrolled at Adelaide University, graduating in 1960. Two years hospital residency followed, before I started vocational training in the new specialty of Anaesthesia at RAH in 1963, attaining a Fellow ship in 1968. 

From the 1954 Annual. Leaving Honours (a portion of the class) (left to right)
Second Row: J O'Loughlin, J Melville, J Gilligan, W Sampson.
Bottom Row: C Sando, R Lewis, J Crawford, M Kennedy.

Anaesthesia was a new specialty. demanding knowledge and skill in a new range of intravenous and gaseous agents and new technologies for the care of patients. It became the springboard for a new era of resuscitation techniques, such as the use of electric shock (defibrillation) to restore heart action and the ability to artificially ventilate patients for a long period. These developments saw much improved care and so the field known as 'intensive care evolved.

When the first unit at RAH opened, I worked there. being appointed the first Director in 1977.  Intensive Care was awarded specialist status and I achieved its Fellowship in 1979. The ICU became a key department of the hospital, undertaking care of critically ill patients with poisoning, snakebite, tetanus (still a problem at that time), severe trauma (especially including head and chest injury}, breathing failure from pneumonia and asthma, management of severe shock states and other condition; In the 1970s, we noted several deaths during transfer of rural patients to Adelaide: these we felt could be saved if advanced expertise in resuscitation could be applied before they left their home towns. This resulted in our set up a special telephone number in the ICU at RAH (and later at FMC, ACH and QEH) so that country doctors could call for advice. Secondly, we trialed the sending of special doctor - nurse teams (called retrieval teams) to country hospitals to assist in providing advanced emergency care, then transporting them by road or air ambulance to Adelaide The Royal Flying Doctor Service provided air transport and the subsequent creation of the State Rescue Helicopter Service provided further help. We also assisted ambulance crews with entrapped patients at accident sites and we made occasional deck landings on ships at sea for injured crewmembers. This was the first Australian use of specialist hospital at travelling beyond the borders of their home hospitals on a regular basis and resulted in a landmark report in the medical literature in 1977. This system was then emulated in many other parts of Australia and NZ.

From the 1954 Annual. Cadet Officers (left to right) Martinkus, Borick, Gilligan, O'Loughlin.

Later. I was directed to help combat the problems of 'bends' (decompression sickness) in abalone divers on the West Coast of SA and so spent time with the Naval School of Underwater Medicine in Sydney. A partnership sprung up with the now defunct Victorian Division of the National Safety Council of Australia This enabled establishment of the Hyperbanc Unit at RAH for treatment of decompression sickness and other conditions. It is now the leading such centre in Australia. We also pioneered methods of safe air transport of such cases, previously hazardous in unpressurised aircraft.

The expertise of RAH airborne teams resulted in their being called upon to repatriate Australian Citizens who had become critically ill overseas (or conversely, foreigners in Australia who had to be repatriated) and who could not be taken home without complex medical evacuation resources. Usually a doctor and one or two nurses plus about 100kg of equipment were required. Qantas provided great assistance. We travelled to every continent over 25 years, in these activities. Many staff involved were also key members of the Australian Defence Force medical reserve, serving with distinction in many trouble spots - the first Gulf War, Rwanda, Bougainville, Solomon Islands, East Timor UN missions and others.

I was honoured to receive the Australian Medical Association award in 1994 for the most outstanding contribution to healthcare in Australia in that year, and in 1999 was awarded the rank of Officer in the Order of Australia (AO) for contribution to Intensive Care Medicine, especially the conduct of airborne intensive care activities. An SA Great Award followed (2004). I am hoping for a quieter retirement.


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Author:Old Collegians Association


Glen Stuart Rd Woodforde Sa 5072 Australia


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