A surgeon's story

Associate Professor Brian Miller has been presented
with a UQ Lifetime Achievement Award honouring his decades of service as a surgeon, mentor and clinician.

A no-fuss attitude equipped Associate Professor Brian Miller for a 28-year career as a lecturer and specialist in colorectal surgery and trauma management.

Dr Miller has completed more than 10,000 operations ranging from trauma surgeries after wild animal attacks in Kenya to amputation for frostbite in Canada.

For the bulk of his career Dr Miller has been performing surgeries in the Colorectal Unit of the Princess Alexandra Hospital.

Associate Professor Brian Miller at work his office at PAH, 2016

Associate Professor Brian Miller at work his office at PAH, 2016

The Kenyan-raised and London-trained medico started work as a part-time generalist at UQ’s Department of Surgery at the PA Hospital on arriving in Australia in 1988.

“Three years later we stopped being conventional general surgeons and 18 of us were split into four sub-specialised general surgical units.

“Professor Russell Strong essentially pointed his finger at me and said ‘you’re in the colorectal unit’ and I said ‘thank you!’”

Doctor Miller said he has no regrets at all about having his specialisation thrust upon him.

“All I wanted was to stay at the PA hospital and in life if you really want to get ahead you find these available niches, work hard and go with the flow, the rest will work out.”

Dr Miller with UQ teaching staff Janet Townsend, Betty Menzies and Sally Chan, running the 4th year OSCA exam at the PA hospital, 1999

One of those niches has delivered direct and tangible results – making a difference to trauma patients across the country.

“I believe my most useful achievement was the role I played in the introduction of a course teaching the early management of severe trauma to trainee surgeons and emergency doctors in Australia and New Zealand,” he said.

“I was asked to implement and direct the course in Queensland because I’d completed its equivalent three years earlier in Canada.

“Apart from learning lifesaving early intervention techniques, qualified doctors are taught a common language for trauma work which is essential in emergency situations.

“This means if you’re in Charleville and you have a patient who’s been hit by a car and need to transfer them, you phone Toowoomba or Brisbane and you're speaking the same language.

“The course took me from Townsville to Toowoomba to Tugun and everywhere in between and I remember those times fondly as they helped create a useful and practical course, and allowed me to meet friends and colleagues I keep to this day.”

Dr Miller with Dr Tim McGahan at the Early Management of Severe Trauma (EMST) course trauma scenarios, 1990

When it comes to the practical, Doctor Miller adds clinical inventions to his list of achievements.

‘Miller’s Visceral Retainer,’ a silicone rubber retainer for safe surgical sewing, was an idea which came to him in the middle of the night.

Miller’s Visceral Retainer, Australian trade mark

Miller’s Visceral Retainer, Australian trade mark

“Before we had the retainer there was no reusable instrument available when it came time to close up when a surgeon finished an exploratory operation on someone's abdomen.

“We’d be grabbing bits of car tyre inner tube, a great big swab, anything we could get our hands on to protect the bowel while we stitched.

“I woke up and thought ‘why don’t we have any standardised instrument for this?’, so I went to an engineer named Fred Howie in Stones Corner and he was willing to make a shaped heated steel mould to cure the raw silicone.

“We made a prototype, then we made four more, we got TGA clearance and less than a year later in 1998 it was commercialised. The instrument is now marketed by Elite Medical Co. Ltd. in Bulimba.”

The silicone visceral retainer can be sterilised repeatedly and found in most Queensland hospitals.

Surgical work for OSSAA in West Timor - caesarean section delivery, 2005

Dr Miller’s genuine concern for his patients has extended beyond his adopted country, with ‘a fluke’ leading to a decade of outreach surgical work in West Timor.

“The Overseas Specialist Surgical Association of Australia had for some time been organising teams to go to West Timor with two surgeons, two nurses and two anaesthetists.

Dr Miller teaching junior doctors to tie surgical knots in West Timor on an OSSAA trip, 2013

Dr Miller teaching junior doctors to tie surgical knots in West Timor on an OSSAA trip, 2013

“Just before a visit one of the surgeon’s mothers had died, so the other, whom I already knew, phoned on the off-chance I could join the team at very short notice.

“I had done some other outreach work in Mombasa and Jamaica and I was available - so I said yes.”

So began a series of trips to West Timor from 2005-2015, with Dr Miller typically performing surgeries such as amputations and caesarean sections, a surgical environment far different to his specialised colorectal surgery back in Brisbane.

Dr Miller and students on teaching ward round in the old PA hospital in 2000

Above all Dr Miller cherishes his time teaching his students and registrars at the hospital.

“I enjoy teaching a lot and it was a natural course during my career.

“I like communicating in an ordered manner and getting things ordered in my own head, from there it’s an obvious direction for me to want to transfer that to others.”

Dr Miller has helped many registrars through their research requirement as part of their study towards a fellowship in Surgery, and helped conceive the annual Covidien Healthcare research awards competition.

“I chair it each year and we mentor registrars through their research projects.

“It’s been a good stimulus for the registrars with three of the past 10 winners going on to complete PhDs.”

It’s not surprising Dr Miller has been variously described by students and registrars as one of their best and most approachable teachers, and has been more formally recognised with various accolades for excellence in teaching.

Associate Professor Ian Hardie, Associate Professor Brian Miller and Head of UQ Surgery Professor Mark Smithers, 2016

Dr Miller, who will conclude his general surgical career on 31 December, received a special UQ Lifetime Achievement Award this week honouring his decades of service as an esteemed and talented researcher, mentor and clinician.

Dr Miller and Professor Smithers 2016

Dr Miller and Professor Smithers 2016

“I’m looking forward to spending time travelling with my wife Rosemary, who has been a tremendous support over the years.

“Rosemary is a small animal veterinarian and while she is winding down her own work at the RSPCA in Wacol, she will continue her involvement with charitable veterinary organizations in Queensland, NT and overseas, as well as taking time to see more of Australia.”

Dr Miller and his wife Rosemary, 2016

Dr Miller and his wife Rosemary, 2016

“I will continue to teach our residents on the colorectal unit, attend grand rounds and colorectal multidisciplinary meetings at PAH and continue some private assisting in surgeries at Greenslopes hospital."

Dr Miller may also continue to make cameo appearances on his harmonica or 12-string guitar.

"For years I played in a hospital band as a way to socialise with colleagues.

Dr Miller (on guitar) with colleagues at the Early Management of Severe Trauma Course, 1989

Dr Miller (on guitar) with colleagues at the Early Management of Severe Trauma Course, 1989

"We've never officially disbanded but we spend more time talking about music than playing - we haven't had a gig in a while."

Dr Miller cites colleagues such as Professors Mark Smithers, David Effeney, John McCaffrey, Russell Strong and Dr Jon Cohen as just a few of the great colleagues and mentors he’s been able to work with, and call friends, over the past 28 years and thanks everyone in the UQ and PA hospital communities.

All the best Doctor Miller!

Dr Miller and his wife Rosemary cutting his 'thank you' cake after his lifetime achievement award presentation, 2016