JUST two weeks out from stepping down as Brisbane Mater Health Services chief executive officer, it’s surprising that Dr John O’Donnell has given little thought to the “l” word.
“My legacy?” he said when asked what his 14 years at the helm of the iconic hospital would leave behind.
“Yes, I’ll certainly have to make up my mind how to answer that question for the various speeches I’ll have to give over the next little while.
“The Mater’s increasingly strong relationship with State Government has been most satisfying.
“One great product of this is that the Government supported the Mater’s redevelopment of the Mater Mothers’ Hospital which is now of national scale and size institution.
Dr O’Donnell is proud of his journey from junior enrolled assistant nurse in country South Australia to leadership of the Mater with its more than 7500 staff, and of his friendship with Mercy Sister Angela Mary Doyle.
Sr Doyle, whose connections with the hospital go back to 1948, was unstinting in her praise when contacted for comment.
“I’ve never heard so many lamentations, and from all levels, when John announced his retirement,” she said.
“He’s certainly the most outstanding leader the Mater has had, yet a very humble man.
“John has been able to develop fine leaders around him which is a rare gift.
“He’s also been dedicated to fostering the Mater culture of compassionate care for the sick.
“I saw this recently in action with the loving personal care the hospital staff gave my own sister (Mercy Sister) Nuala in the months leading up to her death.”
Adelaide-born Dr O’Donnell gathered much experience, and many qualifications, on his route to leadership of the vast Mater Hospital enterprise.
He studied a science degree at the University of Adelaide and, to support himself, during the holidays the then 18-year-old worked in a small country hospital in South Australia “located somewhere in the middle of the Eyre Peninsula”.
“I thoroughly enjoyed every minute and soon transferred to medicine at the university,” he said.
Completing his studies, he spent several years as a general practitioner in South Australia before leaving to work in Canada.
Back in Adelaide, he decided “general practice and I were not made for each other”, saw a training position job in hospital management and entered a phase which would last the rest of his working life.
Dr O’Donnell joined the private sector to commission Australia’s first privatised public hospital at Port Macquarie, before completing the commissioning of St George Private Hospital, Sydney.
Dr O’Donnell took on the role of Mater chief executive officer in November 2001.
“By then I’d married Ann, a Queenslander,” he said. “She was very keen to settle back in her home state.”
Soon after taking charge of the Mater, Dr O’Donnell met Sr Doyle.
“She’d retired by then but always was and will be a great ambassador for the Mater,” he said. “We’ve become very good friends over the years and see each other a lot.”
As Dr O’Donnell eyes retirement there’s a sense he won’t be too retiring.
“That’s not the plan,” he said.
“The intent is to have a more part-time career for the next few years – some consulting, some non-executive directorships, and I also hope to continue on as a board member of Catholic Health Australia for example.”
Next on the agenda is a handover to Mater’s next chief executive officer.
“Dr Shane Kelly comes from Perth,” he said. “With his experience and the Mater’s strong teams I’m sure he’ll do wonderfully well.”
A round of farewell dinners is also on the agenda and Dr O’Donnell will contemplate his legacy.
“I’m very proud in my time that Mater has built a national reputation for the level of excellent clinical care and the compassion with which that care is delivered,” he said.
“I’m also proud that we’ve come to be not just known as clinical service provider but as a fantastic quality teaching institution and excellent research institution.
“I think the other legacy I might leave is a sense of optimism – that the Mater can choose it’s own destiny in the world.
“We can decide what our mission needs to be and pursue it in the many excellent partnerships formed with other organisations.”