From warzone doctor to Geelong surgeon


The tranquillity of the Surf Coast is a world away from the horrors of Iraq, a place where 50 years ago Epworth Geelong surgeon Associate Professor Salah Abbas grew up and went to medical school.

After escaping extreme poverty and multiple wars, Saleh decided to revisit the past and write his memoir, mostly as a legacy for his family.

As Saleh tells the story of Little Shepherd, it sounds like something out of a movie. He often invokes luck as the reason for his peaceful life today, along with education and hard work.

“My father suffered from poverty all his life. It was a difficult life and he didn’t think being a farmer was a sustainable thing to do, in semi-desert, with no running water. He wanted us to be educated, go to the cities and live better than he did,” Saleh said.

Saleh went to medical school in Bagdad, but family and friends suffered awful fates.

“From 1980-88, there was a war. My cousin and brother fought and were killed on the front lines. I avoided becoming a soldier by sheer luck. As one of the top 10 students at medical school, I was exempt from military service.”

Just a few years out of medical school, Saleh was thrust into caring for people in a warzone, when the Gulf War began in 1991.

“It was full on; there was a lot of action around that period. When Bagdad was bombed, I was in the hospital. I slept in a side room for four years because I didn’t have a place of my own.

“When the war ended, the economy collapsed in Iraq. There were 20 million people in what was basically an open air prison, with no job opportunities. When you are young, you look at the future destroyed ahead of you and try to get away.”

Saleh fled to Yemen in 1992, where he encountered more poverty, poor healthcare facilities and a mix of different illnesses he hadn’t encountered before. After four years, he emigrated to New Zealand.

“It was a huge shift in terms of culture, with beautiful mountains, everything green, up to date facilities, it was a real eye opener. That was where everything changed for me.”

Saleh had long wanted to be a surgeon. He undertook surgical training in New Zealand and his first child was born in Auckland. He moved to Australia in 2009 and working hard served him well.

“I started official training for liver surgeons. It was a new thing in Australia then. I was in the first group, there was just four of us, to become officially trained as liver and pancreatic surgeons.

“It was a combination of luck and hard work. Luck will not come unless you are prepared at the right moment,” says a very humble Saleh.

Now happily working in Geelong and living with his wife and three children, Saleh says he has mixed feelings about his book.

“It has been emotionally challenging. Some of the stories are sad, bitter memories. To some extent, it is humbling but losing my brother was a big trauma. Telling that story did give me a sense of pride rather than feeling bitter and betrayed. Basically, my brother died for us.”

Saleh visits Iraq every couple of years to see his parents, who still live there. He takes pride in supporting his nephew, his brother’s child, who is following his own footsteps, undertaking medical school in Bagdad.

A/Prof Abbas began operating at Epworth Geelong when the hospital opened in 2016. He treats patients who have liver and pancreatic cancers and adrenal tumours and enjoys caring for his patients and the local community.

“Geelong has been really good to us,” he says.

Little Shepherd can be ordered through

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