St Vincent’s Heart and Lung Transplantation Program 40th anniversary dinner

Prime Minister

I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet, and I pay respects to all Elders past, present and emerging.

One of my great privileges as Prime Minister is being invited to celebrate anniversaries. Moments when we get to come together in joy and appreciation to mark a milestone in the life of our nation.

What’s less common is to come together and be able to say: Here is something that changed the world.

That is exactly what St Vincent’s Hospital’s Heart and Lung Transplantation Program has done, and I thank St Vincent’s Curran Foundation for putting together this event tonight.

It’s worth casting our minds back 40 years

Thanks to George Orwell, 1984 gets a bit of a bad rap – but in Australia, especially in the health system, it was a vintage year.

The Hawke Government introduced Medicare, ensuring all Australians could access medical care according to their need, not according to the size of their bank balance.

Universal health care is a proud Labor legacy – one that will keep changing the lives of Australians long after the last of Medicare’s architects is gone.

More than that, it is a source of a pride for all us of Australians – because it speaks so clearly to the innate sense of fairness that we carry within us, and see as one of the most abiding traits of our national character.

That is why strengthening Medicare is one of the biggest priorities of this Government.

In 1984, we saw that same spirit embodied time and time again at St Vincent’s Hospital.

Australia’s first dedicated AIDS ward – 17South – was established there.

For those who weren’t around during that time, it’s hard to imagine what those early days of AIDS were like, a time darkened by that most tragically reliable of partnerships – ignorance and fear.

Yet the ward was established, an early shaft of light holding back the darkness.

And it was of course the year that Australia’s first heart transplantation program began.

Indeed on Monday, it will be 40 years since the then 14-year-old Fiona Coote became the youngest Australian to feel within her body the beat of a heart that she wasn’t born with.

Thanks to that heart, and the pioneering work of Dr Victor Chang and his team, Fiona is here tonight – Australia’s longest surviving heart transplant recipient, and one of the world’s longest living transplant recipients.

Fiona, you are a remarkable Australian in your own right and it is an honour to be here with you tonight.

In you – and in so many Australians – all that Dr Chang dreamed of and strove towards goes on. You are his vision made his real.

As Prime Minister Paul Keating observed when he launched the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in 1994, Dr Chang was a great Australian, a great surgeon and a great humanitarian.

By that point, Dr Chang had already been gone for nearly three years. The senseless cruelty with which his life was taken, shook our nation profoundly.

Yet, because of all that he did, our nation stands more firmly. Such is the magnitude of his legacy.

It is a legacy that continues to be carried and built upon by St Vincent’s, enhanced – as Prime Minister Keating observed – by the philosophy of compassion that the Sisters of Charity bring to St Vincent’s a guiding star that has humanity at its core.

What it adds up to is something remarkable yet so utterly true to the Australian spirit – a powerhouse of cutting edge science, technology and talent that is available to all Australians.

A powerhouse that has saved so many Australians.

Those first heart transplants were followed at the dawn of the 1990s by Australia’s first lung transplants.

Thanks to the work of Professor Peter MacDonald AM and his team, you showed how to preserve that most sacred of rhythms when you worked out how to keep a heart beating outside the body.

Your Heart and Lung Transplant Program is now the fifth busiest in the world.

You’re a model of international co-operation – reaching out across the world with so much to give, and so much to gain.

You’re providing support to our friend and neighbour, Vietnam, so that they can establish their own heart transplant team.

You are taking your capabilities to Indigenous communities to improve lives in the world’s oldest continuous culture.

And, in partnership with Australian biotech company BiVACOR and Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital, you are working on the world’s first implantable artificial heart.

It’s a technology that could halve deaths from heart failure globally.

I am proud that in February, my Government announced funding of $50 million to help develop and commercialise it.

It is the third-largest grant in the nearly 10 years since the Medical Research Future Fund was established. And on top of all its other benefits, it stands to add $1.8 billion to Australia and Australian society.

When we have an institution like St Vincent’s playing such an important role, it is vital that governments step up and play theirs.

Just as the extraordinary philanthropists here today play theirs. Your acts of generosity do so much more than lighten the load. Thank you for all you give.

Australia has one of the best health systems in the world – because of the extraordinary people who work in it, because of remarkable programs like this one and because places like St Vincent’s and health care workers like you are available to every Australian, on the basis of need.

It’s difficult to think of a more powerful phrase in the English language than “the gift of life”.

For four decades, St Vincent’s Hospital’s Heart and Lung Transplantation Program – and every single person who makes it possible – have shown the truest meaning of those words through your actions.

And in the process, you have made us a better country.

Here’s to your next 40 years.

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