Today, it is with heavy hearts that we reflect on the passing of Dr John Yeo – a quietly spoken man of huge compassion who made an immeasurable difference to the lives of those living with spinal cord injury. It is fair to say that Dr Yeo, along with an expert team, was central to the establishment of the first dedicated spinal unit in Australia – at Sydney’s Royal North Shore hospital.
To understand the full impact Dr Yeo has had on the lives of people living with spinal cord injury, one need only speak with some of his early patients – from back in the ‘70’s when life expectancy was 10 to 15 years, or less. For the patients and families of Dr Yeo he “gave us back our lives”. And the lives they have led have been rich and rewarding, filled with quality – and, happily, abundant quantity.
Born of country stock, Dr Yeo’s family moved to Sydney in the 1930’s. While he explored his options studying surgery, time spent establishing links with colleagues internationally, especially in the UK, opened Dr Yeo’s eyes to the developments in management and support of those with spinal cord injury.
In 1965, Dr Yeo was appointed Senior Registrar in Paraplegia at Royal North Shore Hospital. In 1967, he won a Churchill Fellowship to travel internationally and study the recent advances in the field. In 1968, he took up the position of Medical Director and Head of the Spinal Injuries Unit at the Royal North Shore Hospital, a position he held until 1992. In those early days when a spinal injury was considered largely untreatable, Dr Yeo considered other ways in which people with spinal injuries could be supported. He lobbied governments and influencers to expand spinal cord injury support services. In 1976 he founded the Spinal Research Foundation. He also founded the Spinesafe Education Program for school-aged children and helped revolutionise the care of spinal patients in rehabilitation.
Dr Yeo’s history is also strongly intertwined with that of our association. The Paraplegic Association of NSW was founded in 1960. The establishment of a central spinal unit in NSW was one of the original goals of the Association. Spearheaded by Dr John Grant and later Dr Yeo, the campaign was given support in 1966, when the Hon. Harry Jago, Minister for Health, endorsed the work achieved at RNSH and committed to its expansion. We welcomed Dr Yeo as a director that year. In 1970 the name of the organisation was expanded to include those whose injury was more extensive, involving their arms and upper body, as the Paraplegic and Quadriplegic Association of NSW. The “founding father” of the association and a colleague of Dr Yeo’s from RNSH, Dr John Grant, joined forces with him to establish the RNSH Games – the forerunner of WheelChair Sports NSW and a great step towards the Paralympic movement we see today.
Our Chairman, Anders Halvorsen attests to the value of sport in recovery and regaining a sense of purpose post injury: “I had my accident when I was 23 and my life as I knew it had come to an end. While I was at RNSH the spinal patients were taken down to the hospital oval once a week to try their hand at different sports. I tried archery and to my surprise I was reasonably good at it. Psychologically it helped me greatly to see that I could do things and achieve satisfaction from them. The sports days were a turning point for me.”
In his three decades at the Unit, Dr Yeo oversaw incredible change for victims of spinal paralysis. As he retired, the life expectancy of people who sustained a spinal cord injury was essentially in line with the general population. Not only that but the quality of life of those individuals and the opportunities available to them had expanded enormously. While research into the rehabilitation and the dream of restoring function has moved forward enormously, the enduring frustration of Dr Yeo’s was the incapacity to cure these types of injuries and made Yeo’s job as a carer extremely challenging. Ever humble, John was quick to state that he was only a small part of the Spinal Unit’s expertise, but his story and contribution has been nonetheless incredible.
So, as you leave this mortal life, we say thank you Dr John Yeo. As a community we owe you an immeasurable debt of gratitude for transforming our understanding of spinal cord injury, ensuring that anyone who sustains such an injury has the opportunity to be fully supported and lead a rich and full life. For those living with a spinal cord injury, their families and friends – who you have touched directly or indirectly with your skill and humanity – we say, “thank you for giving us back our lives”.
Vale Dr John Yeo.
Images via: Youtube video (Sharing the Journey | Dr John Yeo)