Dr John Yeo and Dr Robert Costa are two men I feel extremely privileged to have met. Co-incidentally, they are both medical men.

Dr Yeo is retired now, but he was a highly respected spinal surgeon at Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital.

Dr John Yeo

I first met him in 1988. He was on the board of the organization I worked for at the time. We taught clerical and computer skills to people with disabilities. What struck me about Dr Yeo was that although he must have been one the busiest men in the city, he never appeared to be in a hurry. He would take the time to speak to us all in the same, warm manner, no matter what position we held.

There was something else about him that has stayed in my memory all these years. If he saw our newspaper lying outside the building he would stop to pick it up and bring it inside. Such a small thing, but one that said so much about him.

Dr Yeo was awarded a Churchill Fellowship in 1967. He is pictured below with 1989 recipient Sally Pang Rippingale (centre) and his lovely wife Joy.

Dr  John Yeo with fellow Churchill Fellowship recipient and his wife Joy.

John Yeo’s career was not just about surgery, but the provision of better post operative care for those with permanent spinal injuries. When he began work at RNS in 1964 the situation was dire. The spinal unit was housed in an old weatherboard and fibro building. Rehabilitation was almost non-existent and the life span for paraplegics and quadriplegics was far below normal.

Dr John Yeo with staff at the old spinal unit at Royal North Shore.
Dr Yeo (third from left) with staff at the old spinal unit.

At the end of this piece there is a link to a video of him talking about his life and work. People often asked why he chose a field in which he was unable to ‘fix’ his often tragically young patients. Well, for one thing Dr Yeo recognized that mental and emotional healing was also vital to their shattered lives. He advocated for change, and has lived to see remarkable advances.


Dr Robert Costa is a man of similar character. I met him in 2013, under very different circumstances.


Dr Costa is a cardiothoracic surgeon, who operated on me at the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital, on Sydney’s Upper North Shore. I was suffering from pericardial effusion as a complication of Churg Strauss Syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease. He cut a permanent window in the lining of my heart to allow the fluid to escape.

I met with Dr Costa the day before surgery so that he could explain the procedure. It was a bit scary, but to be honest, I was more worried about completing the vast quantity of admittance papers I’d been handed at reception. OMG, they appeared overwhelming. I was 60 at the time, with a significant medical history. How to recall everything, and what on earth was relevant and what wasn’t? While we were sitting there the dear man spotted them and said, ‘Let’s have a look at those.’ To my enormous relief he guided me through the whole lot. What would have taken me a stressful couple of hours was completed in twenty minutes. Precious time out of his day, but what a burden he lifted from me.

Following the operation the highlight of my day was when he popped in on his rounds.

Pauline Conolly at The San after heart surgery

As soon as the medical checks were over, he would have a little chat with me and my partner. He made us feel we were the most interesting people in the universe! One day we were talking about travel and he said he spent time abroad each year doing volunteer work with the hospital’s outreach surgical team. I later discovered he had been admitted to the humanitarian Order of Malta, which dates back many centuries.

Mission statement of the Order of Malta.

He was appointed to a national role within the organization in 2018;

Dr Robert Costa has been appointed as National Hospitalier of the Order of Malta in Australia….Robert has been heavily involved with various projects including Coats for the Homeless and the Order of Malta Medical Clinic in Dili (Robert is the Medical Director of the clinic.) Prior to becoming a member of the Order, Robert had been involved in volunteering roles in various South Pacific Nations and India.

Professionally, Robert is a Cardiothoracic Surgeon with an appointment to a major Sydney teaching hospital and several private hospitals.

Honestly, how does one person fit all that in?

Dr Costa works with the charity Coats For the Homeless.
Recipients of the warm, waterproof Coats For the Homeless.

To hear Dr John Yeo speaking about his life and work, CLICK HERE.

There are some people I remember for negative reasons, but others, like these two men, remain in my mind as beacons of light, hope and kindness.

  1. Wonderful memories of two fine fellows.

    • Pauline

      Just thinking about them restores my faith in humanity Simon.

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