George Westlake

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The Find a Surgeon directory is a listing of active Fellows of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons who meet the requirements of the College's Continuing Professional Development (CPD) Program and have opted to be on the list. This list excludes retired or inactive Fellows.

 

George William Westlake A.M.
Cardiothoracic Surgeon
10 July 1927 - 27 June 2012

George Westlake, a pioneer in heart surgery in Australia, a superb technical surgeon, and innovator who was also responsible for training many cardiothoracic surgeons died recently, from pneumonia that complicated a long illness, at home, in Rye, surrounded by his family.

Born in Perth, he attended Perth Modern School, a selective entry high school, during the war years from 1939 to 1945. Bob Hawke and Rolf Harris were fellow students!

After first year science at the University of Western Australia, he studied medicine at the University of Melbourne, (there was no medical school in Perth), graduating in 1950.

George spent his early medical years at the Alfred Hospital, then trained in thoracic surgery, at the Repatriation General, and Royal Melbourne Hospitals, completing his F.R.A.C.S. in 1956.

He married Barbara Brumley, a nursing sister at the Alfred Hospital, in 1952, and together they had 3 daughters, Jenny, Anna and Lisa.

In 1956, Westlake, with his young family, travelled by ship to London, where he worked at the Royal Brompton Hospital under the mentorship of Lord Russell Brock, (Thoracic Surgeon to King George VI). These were pioneering days of heart surgery. Dr. John Gibbon had just invented the heart lung machine in 1955 in Philadelphia. So in 1958 Westlake also travelled to the USA to study the critical developments which were taking place there.

Westlake returned as Cardiothoracic Surgeon at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in 1958, and, was also appointed Director of Heart Surgery at the Royal Children's Hospital, from 1958 to 1966.

Cardiac surgery at this time encompassed repair of congenital "holes in the heart", and "opening up" heart valves, narrowed at birth or by Rheumatic Fever, usually in children and young adults.

In 1970, following a review of cardiac surgery in Melbourne, two cardiac surgery units were established: at the Alfred Hospital, (Monash University) and the University of Melbourne Open Heart Surgery Unit at St. Vincent's Hospital, where the patients from the Royal Melbourne, Austin and St. Vincent's Hospitals were operated, and subsequently sent back on the second post operative day for continuing management. This rationalized system allowed pooling of resources, efficiencies, and concentration of expertise, and despite logistic problems, generally served the patients well.

With successful heart valve replacement surgery and the ever expanding need for coronary bypass, the Royal Melbourne Hospital re-established its own cardiac surgery unit in 1982. Westlake was Head of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the Royal Melbourne from 1977 till 1988 and Director of the University of Melbourne Open Heart Surgery Unit from 1978 to 1982.

He was a gifted surgeon, ambidextrous, quick and decisive, able to perform complex surgery (that others often found difficult) effortlessly with ease and elegance. He operated with grace under pressure and achieved excellent results. He performed over 10,000 major lung and heart operations in his professional lifetime

He was enthusiastic and inquisitive, constantly improving surgical techniques, and helped introduce new procedures: Repair and replacement of heart valves, the thoracic aorta, challenging procedures to correct complex congenital heart defects and coronary artery bypass surgery.

The enormity of these tasks should be seen in the context of developing these procedures step by step with colleagues, as they were being performed for the first time. Echocardiography, CT scanning and MRI were not yet invented, and heart lung machine technology was rudimentary.

Westlake and his colleagues progressively improved and refined heart operations, incorporating the latest advances. Operative risk was reduced from 20% in the 1960s, to 5-10% in the 1970s further reducing to 1-5% in the 1980s. Operations that took 6-12 hours and used upto18 units (6litres) of blood were transformed to 3-4 hours and frequently performed without blood.

Westlake was also a key member of a number of philanthropic surgical teams that travelled to Burma and Thailand in the 1960s and 70s, repairing heart defects and mentoring young surgeons, experiences he found fulfilling.

Westlake introduced "Cardioplegia" for heart protection during surgery, in 1977 after a visit to St. Thomas's Hospital in London, still used today albeit with some modifications and was the first to implant the St. Jude Medical bileaflet pyrolytic carbon mechanical heart valve in Australasia, in August 1978. This valve has proven to have excellent results, and is still used today, with over 2 million implants worldwide.

Westlake also supported the establishment of heart surgery at Epworth Private Hospital in September 1981, despite significant opposition from within the profession. This became an outstanding venture, not only in the excellent service provided to patients, with superb results, but also, the large database that was generated has formed the basis of multiple publications, pivotal in establishing Melbourne's international reputation for coronary surgery, particularly with arterial grafting.

Following a number of difficult years and divorce, George remarried, Maureen Thorp, in 1977. Socially, George had many great friends from a wide spectrum of society, - medicine, media and entertainment and charity groups. He developed a passion for jazz, and became a keen exponent of the trombone.

Westlake was adventurous and irrepressible and undertook new experiences with a "dare devil" approach and much glee, - and was especially captivated by scuba diving

Unfortunately in 1985, Westlake's career was dramatically disrupted by a "parasailing" accident whilst holidaying in Queensland. He fractured both forearms and both hips, requiring many orthopaedic operations and significant rehabilitation. With great tenacity and spirit he returned to surgery for another five years retiring at 65 in 1992. We can only imagine the degree of pain that dogged him through those final years which he faced with great courage and equanimity.

Westlake always made an impression on people, with his good looks, intellect, disarming directness, and warmth. He had a great sense of humour, disliked political correctness, and was fiercely loyal to the staff, who in turn adored and respected him. He was also admired by his colleagues at the Royal Melbourne and Epworth Hospitals. His generosity to his colleagues and staff was legendary as evidenced by the many social events, including Christmas functions for over 100 people on many occasions that George and his wife Maureen hosted, ensuring a great time and a gift for every person.

Despite these many facets, George Westlake's great love was clinical cardiac surgery which he performed with exquisite skill, and with outstanding results for which his patients and their families were eternally grateful.

In 1988 (Australian Bicentenary) he was honoured with an Order of Australia Award for "Services to Medicine, particularly as a cardiothoracic surgeon".

George spent the 20 years post retirement travelling, fishing, deep sea diving, playing golf on the Mornington Peninsula, enjoying friends, but mostly spending time with his loving family. He died just two weeks short of his 85th birthday and is survived by brother Donald, wife Maureen, daughters Jenny, Anna and Lisa and 8 grandchildren.

James Tatoulis FRACS, FCSANZ