Stewart Condon

Stewart Condon is President and Board Chair at Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) Australia. He also works as a locum at emergency departments in Illawarra area hospitals. He studied medicine at the University of NSW, and worked as a doctor on the south coast before moving to central Australia to assist Aboriginal communities. Stewart started his association with MSF as a volunteer, travelling to Sudan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to provide emergency medical aid.

Condon told IE Journalist Sue Osborne that he has been disturbed by recent events that have seen MSF hospitals or hospitals supported by MSF bombed, particularly the US airstrike last October on a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, which left at least 42 patients and medical staff dead.

His tenure as President will end soon and he’s looking forward to getting back out in the field.

I was born in Sydney but I spent my earliest 10 years of schooling in Adelaide. I went to Belair Primary School then had a year at Unley High School before we moved back to Sydney. I had one year at Concord High School before I won a scholarship to Newington College.

I don’t think changing schools a lot was detrimental to my education. It gave me an interesting insight into how schools function in different ways. I was surprised how South Australia can operate a different curriculum and at a different speed to NSW. Year 8 in Sydney was behind Year 8 in Adelaide.

It was only towards the end of school I realised I wanted to be a doctor. I was always interested in maths and science and I came from a medical family. Mum was a nurse/midwife and dad was a radiographer. In Year 12 it crystallised that science felt more real to me than the humanities but I wanted to do something that involved communicating as well.

My enjoyment of science started in primary school, from a teacher who taught us computing, Dr Jay. He was a flamboyant teacher who gave a really interesting flavour to the subject and it was more hands on than other subjects. I had a physics teacher at Newington, Dr Newcombe, who was fantastic. He saw my talents in science and maths and encouraged me to take part in Olympiads.

Under the Geneva Convention warring parties are supposed to respect the Red Cross on the roof of a hospital, but warring parties are changing.

Equal opportunity

I would say my interest in social justice came from my family although I think school had an effect too. At Newington there was more of a Christian ethos. But being at Newington made me uncomfortable because I was aware of the privilege. I had stayed in touch with a best friend at Concord High where we had been competing closely for marks. When we got our final TER he got 90, which is great and really good for Concord High, but I got 99, and I found that difficult. People should have equal access to opportunity.

Newington also had a program where they gave scholarships and board to boys from the Pacific Islands on a rugby program.

I got to know some of their stories. This made me aware that people, just a few hours flight from Australia, had no running water and other problems and I found this shocking.

I loved being at school. We remember the teachers but the environment was important too. I still dream about the leafy ovals at Belair. They seemed so big to me at the time. Newington was also amazing with its big open green spaces.

Keeping people safe

I have been President of MSF Australia for about 18 months and on the board for almost five years. It’s a coordinating role, we meet every four to six weeks and there are international meetings. The field missions are coordinated from Paris and we supply the human resources and finances.

As President I have a WHS responsibility to try and make sure we are sending staff to a safe environment. We don’t want our staff to die for the cause. Under the Geneva Convention warring parties are supposed to respect the Red Cross on the roof of a hospital, but warring parties are changing.

The hospital in Kunduz was the only one in the area available to patients with traumatic injuries. The cost to staff is horrific but the impact on the community is huge too.

West Africa was another good example. No hospitals were destroyed but staff were in insecure conditions because of the Ebola virus.

We have to make sure we put people into the right circumstances. We assume medical work can happen and we can treat patients and I hope that will continue.