As a child, he grew up reading everything from authors such as A J Cronin and Albert Camus to the poetry of Keats, Donne, and Tennyson. “I was always interested in writing but it never progressed,” he says. A conversation with a patient, a writer, changed that.
“His advice was to write something, anything.” So I wrote a page, then a couple of pages, about my experiences as a patient. He read it and I thought that was the end of it, but a few weeks later he contacted me and said that he’d made an appointment with a leading Sydney agent and as a favour she would see me for ten minutes. I went along feeling like a kid who could only colour in and was about to talk to Van Gogh. But she read my stuff and liked what I’d done, said she’d love to see it developed into a book. That was that.”
Four years later, he has published three books and co-written a stage play with one of the legends of Australian theatre, David Williamson. Most professional authors would be pleased with that output, let alone someone who also has a full time position at Nepean Clinical School, continues to practise surgery, is pushing ahead with a significant government funded e-health project – and has two teenage children.
Perhaps the habitual sleep deprivation that was part and parcel of surgical training – and described in some detail in his first book Making the Cut – has also actually been a useful preparation for his literary career. He is, he admits, a 3am writer. “A colleague once said to me, Khadra, there are 24 hours in the day – and then there is the night.”
At first blush, his books are not for the faint hearted. Making The Cut is about his struggle to make it as a young surgeon, surviving grueling hours and incredible pressure to perform. It also detailed his own diagnosis of cancer, subsequent treatment and the impact of that experience on his approach to medicine and care.
His second book, The Patient, is the story of an “average guy”, terminally ill with cancer, and the challenges of serious illness in a system which often falls short. Terminal Decline, his third, tackled the even more difficult subject of the healthcare system, its stifling bureaucracy and treatments worse than the disease. At Any Cost examines the cost of extending life when quality of life is diminished.
Difficult subjects for sure, but the fact that the books and the play have attracted such a loyal audience shows that there is a demand for stories which can help people to understand, and deal with, challenges of serious illness. “As surgeons we need to contribute to the dialogue. We should be telling people to turn to the person they love most, or the person who will be there at the end, and discuss their wishes.”
Writing is also a way of making sense of the world. “I just saw a 37 year old man with prostate cancer and I know his life will be dramatically different; it will change his outlook on life, his health, his finances. It is difficult not to personalise that. Cancer hurts, not just physically, it changes your life. I’ve had cancer, surgery, radio iodine treatments. My two boys were newly born and one day I felt a mass in my neck and found I had thyroid cancer.”
But one of the other great benefits of authorship, he says, is that it opens new doors and creates opportunities for new friendships. At a writer’s festival several years ago, he looked across the room and saw playwright David Williamson. “I went up to him and suggested we write a play together. He looked at me blankly but I dashed to the bookstore nearby and grabbed my books off the shelf, wrote my phone number in one, and shoved them into his hands. Six weeks later he rang me and we met.”
At Any Cost was produced in two theatres in 2011, and Nepean Clinical School was able to host its own writers day with Williamson on the speakers list.