Let’s celebrate the bolt-cutter surgeon

bolt cutters

When orthopaedic surgeon Chris Phoon sent someone to a local hardware store in Bega, NSW, to buy bolt cutters mid-operation, his admin bosses weren’t impressed.

But I was.

Dr Phoon’s hospital-supplied bolt cutters snapped mid-operation and his attempt to source a pair from Canberra Hospital failed. Time for plan C.

Staring at a stubborn steel pin needing urgent removal means only one thing to a red-blooded Aussie male…Bunnings!

Quite unreasonably, in my view, the surgeon’s heroic attempt at pulling the pin was frowned upon by the hospital administrators, whose lawyers pulled the pin instead. The plan was abandoned mid-operation and the patient may be still, for all we know, languishing somewhere on the hospital’s 247-day-average surgical waiting list.

Now, I’m as guilty of poking fun at my orthopaedic friends as the next bloke—guiltier, because I put it in writing. Like when the orthopod took six days to solve a simple jigsaw puzzle and was proud, because it said “From 4-6 years” on the box.

But these bone grinders aren’t hired to lead group discussions around whether psychological therapy helps healing after a fall out of bed.

If I have a thick metal shaft poking out of my leg and the fella with big hands tells me I’m better off without it, I want to wake up with it cleaved in twain and in the bin. Keep subtlety for the soft tissues.

If that involves some lateral thinking and a Bunnings voucher, hell, I’d shout him a community sausage while he’s there.

Everything in life entails risk, and I guess even a brand new tool is no exception. At a tenth the cost of its medical equivalent, there has to be a downside, right? But the surgeon’s plan, had it not been stymied, even involved an autoclave steriliser, rather than just a lick of betadine. I mean, the guy could have been a physician!

Why am I so passionate about his hardware rights? Because I have done the same thing myself, to a lesser extent, on numerous occasions.

“Some of the tea bags may not have been

medical grade”

For 13 years I published a weekly ‘GP Tip’ in Medical Observer, and many handy hints involved using items raided from the tea room, pantry, garage or reception desk.

Paper clips, rubber bands, olive oil, Vaseline, honey, tea bags, sugar, milk containers, magnets, fishing line and drills all featured. And not all of them were medical grade!

I even had my own bolt-cutter moment when a recreational fisherman in Kakadu National Park snagged his own hand instead of a barramundi. My usual bag of ‘GP Tips’ tricks failed, and because the hook was huge my medical cutters were useless.

His mate saw my dilemma and disappeared out to the ute, returning with a pre-loved pair of cutters which would have had even Dr Phoon raising an eyebrow. They’d spent more time down fishes’ throats than Jonah.

My puny hands, so useful for signing even the largest of documents, couldn’t snap the metal, so his burly mate took over. The ‘ping’ sound of the barb hitting the wall reminded me I probably should have considered eye protection, but all ended well.

So, here’s to the lateral thinkers, I say. To the gritty folk who get the job done.

This article was first published in Medical Observer, March 2017

About Dr Justin Coleman

Justin is a GP in Brisbane and Director of Education for GPs in the NT. He edits a medical journal and two medical textbooks, and is a medical writer and educator. Further details at https://drjustincoleman.com/
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7 Responses to Let’s celebrate the bolt-cutter surgeon

  1. gilesdg says:

    You are such a great writer Justin, love your work


  2. Catherine Phoon says:

    Hi Justin, the surgeon in question is my husband. The same one who had to fashion a splint for a child with a fractured femur out of crutches, plaster and a bucket handle a year prior due to lack of equipment. He is now locumming elsewhere while I remain in rural general practice with 3 children in an area whose administrators feel they no longer need his services but fly in less qualified orthopods to fill his void.


    • Delighted to hear from you, Catherine, and thanks for commenting. I was wondering if I’d hear from my story protagonist eventually (or perhaps from his hospital admin!), so I’m glad you are a blog reader.
      Great to hear you’re both still doing the hard yards out rurally, although a pity for Bega about Chris’s situation. Pass on my regards.
      I’m running a few GP workshops etc in NSW this year, so if we ever happen to be in the same place, please do come up and say hello.


  3. Chris phoon says:

    Ha! Factually incorrect. We are more remote than that. We dont have a Bunnings for 2-3hours drive


    • Ah, no wonder you keep getting into trouble, Chris. You haven’t yet adapted to the post-fact world. We writers value the rhythm and timbre of a sentence. “Bunnings” is a one-word embodiment of the generic idea of a hardware store. This is poetry, so it’s technically an ode to you!


  4. Chris Ellis says:

    If I need surgery I’ll hunt you down. Sorry to hear it hasn’t worked out with Bega.


  5. Fiona Brooks says:

    i can remember once they didn’t have a short enough rod in OT, luckily the builder were on site…….
    I remember you and I thinking outside the box many times I Kakadu!👍🏼


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