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From penniless prisoner to bionic surgeon

He's a miracle worker who fits amputees with radical robotic limbs. Yet, just how did he escape his life in war-torn Iraq to become a Porsche-driving Sydney surgeon? Clair Weaver reports.

Dr Munjed Al Muderis. Photography by Tim Bauer. Styling by Stav Hortis.
He's a world-leading surgeon who drives a Porsche, wears Italian designer clothes and lives in a luxury waterfront home overlooking the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Patients come from all over the world to go under his knife, as he transforms lives with artificial bones and robotic limbs. He leads research, lectures and travels regularly to Europe to stay on top of his game. Confident, driven and articulate, Dr Munjed Al Muderis has all the trappings of Australia’s most successful medical elite.
But 14 years ago, it was a very different picture. Soaking wet and exhausted, he was hauled ashore by police as a refugee with little more than the clothes on his back. He’d fled his native Iraq when Saddam Hussein’s henchmen ordered him to carry out the most brutal of acts: cutting the ears off soldiers who’d deserted. Transferred to a violence-wracked detention centre in the WA outback, Dr Al Muderis was known for the next ten months only by his number: “982”.
Today, his name has global reach. He’s one of only a handful of orthopaedic surgeons in the world performing osseointegration: a radical procedure in which a metallic rod is implanted directly into an amputee’s thigh bone, creating a protruding artificial bone that connects directly onto a robotic limb. The resulting bionic leg – in which bone and muscle grow around the upper part of the rod and a system of hydraulics, sensors and a lithium battery drive the lower limb – allows patients almost the same range of motion and movement as an able-bodied person.
Because the leg is connected to the skeleton, patients often remark they can “feel the ground” under their artificial foot for the first time. It bears little resemblance to traditional prosthetics, which can be painful, impractical and cumbersome. "They go from being a disabled person to someone who is special - with something extra," Dr Al Muderis says. "We are on the verge of changing the future for amputee management worldwide." Paralympians are among those who have benefited from the revolutionary technique. One patient even took his bionic leg parachuting.
In the past three years, the 41-year-old has performed more of this type of surgery than anyone else, pushing into world-first territory with the complexity of his cases. While he may be too modest to admit it, he is considered the leader in the field. The British military is sending a double-amputee half way around the world to his clinic as a trial, with a view to routinely referring fighters who’ve lost legs in combat. "I’m very honoured," he says.
While there is some irony in an Iraqi-born surgeon rehabilitating soldiers who have occupied his home country, the 41-year-old feels a strong desire to give back. "[Losing a limb] is an unfortunate thing to happen to anyone," he says, "but especially soldiers who are trying to help out in places like Iraq and Afghanistan." His sense of obligation doesn’t end there: Dr Al Muderis is also a squadron leader in the Australian Air Force Reserves and hopes his surgical skills can be used in service to this country’s injured defence personnel: "it’s the reason I joined."
So how did this one-time boat person get to where he is today? At Curtin Detention Centre in WA’s far north Kimberley region, where he landed after arriving on a leaky, overcrowded wooden boat on 8 November, 1999, he was warned not to set his expectations too high. As an English speaker, he had the opportunity to speak to then immigration minister Philip Ruddock during an official inspection of the facility. "We were having a conversation and I said that I was a doctor," recalls Dr Al Muderis. "He said you will probably never prove your qualification [in Australia]." This, however, appears to have only strengthened the young doctor’s resolve. “If you want something and you are determined, anything is possible,” he says. “Australia is the land of opportunity."
So what would he say if he were reunited with Mr Ruddock today? "I would be interested to meet him – his opinions still carry weight," muses Dr Al Muderis. "Not to say, 'you’re wrong' but to say, 'hey mate, let’s talk about it.'"
One of the reasons behind his meteoric rise from penniless refugee to world-leading surgeon is his extraordinary work ethic. Since his release from detention, he has accepted placements in various locations, from his first emergency job at Mildura to suburban Melbourne, Bendigo, Wollongong and Canberra – while never giving up on his dream of undertaking robotic surgery. In 2008, he obtained his surgical fellowship in orthopaedics, before travelling to Germany to learn cutting-edge techniques in osseointegration.
During a stint in NSW’s Lismore, he met a beautiful Russian medical trainee, Irina, now his 36-year-old wife and a GP. The couple has a four-year-old daughter, Sophia, along with his sons Adam, 11, and Dean, 9, from a previous relationship. The boys are following in their father’s footsteps by excelling at school, while their extroverted younger sister is equally enraptured by videos of her dad’s surgery as playing with her beloved Barbie dolls.
Even with increasing commitments elsewhere in his life, Dr Al Muderis’ capacity for work shows no sign of abating: it’s not uncommon for him to be operating from early morning to midnight during the week, fuelled by up to two litres of Coca-Cola a day. Most surgeons have one daily theatre list; he often has two on the go. While weekends are family time, he’ll find time to pop in and check up on his patients too.
It’s clear his job is far more than a way to pay the bills for Dr Al Muderis. A curious and creative child, he loved to construct things with his Meccano set. But it was the blockbuster Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Terminator in the mid-80s that really captured his imagination. "When I was a teenager, I knew I wanted to become a surgeon," he recalls. "The ultimate dream was to make a half human, half robot."
This endearingly unselfconscious enthusiasm has never worn off: it’s evident as he narrates footage of a hip replacement on his laptop for The Weekly crew and explains how it changes his patients’ lives. "Passion drives everything in our lives," he says.
Although he was forced to rebuild a new life from scratch, Dr Al Muderis comes from a privileged background in Iraq. A descendant of the second royal family, his uncle was prime minister when the country was still a kingdom and his elderly father, who died of natural causes in 1995, was a former supreme court judge and in charge of the marine corps.
But medicine was also in his blood. After graduating from Baghdad University, he was working as a surgical intern at the city’s main hospital when the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s regime pierced the comfortable bubble of his everyday life. He’d been mulling over plans for dinner that night when three busloads of soldiers suddenly pulled up outside. "[Military commanders] came in and ordered us to surgically remove the ears of about 100 army deserters," he recalls.
The head of his department challenged the orders. "He was very brave," says Dr Al Muderis. "He said, 'no, it's against my oath [the universal medical pledge to "do no harm"].' So the commanders gathered everyone in the carpark and put a bullet through his head. Then they said, 'if you share his views, please come forward." In horror, Dr Al Muderis managed to hide in a female toilet cubicle for five hours. Heart pounding as soldiers stalked the corridors in search of missing doctors, he made a run for it during a lull. Sprinting into the outer suburbs of Baghdad, he knew he could never go home again.
His fears were warranted: intelligence officers came looking for him almost immediately, questioning his mother on his whereabouts. Aware that he was wanted, Dr Al Muderis fled by bus to Jordan, with a nerve-wracking wait for his fake documentation to be inspected at the border. At Amman, he contacted an aunt, who helped him get to Malaysia via Abu Dhabi.
It was here that his destiny fell into the laps of people smugglers. At a McDonald’s restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, he met a blonde man who demanded $1,500 upfront to get him to Indonesia. Handing over the money, Dr Al Muderis asked, "How can I trust you?"The response: "What choice do you have?" In Jakarta, he was sent to a hotel filled with asylum seekers and told to expect a six-month wait. But when it was discovered he was a doctor, he was fast-tracked onto a boat leaving two days later and given orders to take particular care of three pregnant women, including a Mullah’s daughter, on the voyage.
Until Dr Al Muderis boarded a dinghy in darkness and got into a flimsy boat – soon to be crammed with about 160 passengers rather than the 50 he’d been advised of - he had no idea where he was heading. When the Indonesian skipper abandoned ship as they reached international waters, climbing into a frigate that pulled alongside, he advised them to stay on a straight course to reach Christmas Island in 36 hours - then throw the navigation equipment overboard.
The next part of the journey was a nightmarish blur of treating sick and dehydrated passengers amid violently churning seas on a deck so overcrowded that people were unable to sit down. At Christmas Island, Australian Federal Police officers escorted them to a makeshift camp on basketball courts and gave them towels to dry off. A small block of toilets was quickly overwhelmed by a putrefying mess left by new arrivals unfamiliar with Western toilets. There were no showers.
Five days later, the group was transferred to Curtin Detention Centre. “A woman from the Department of Immigration came in a few days afterwards,” recalls Dr Al Muderis. “She said, ‘you are very unwelcome here: Australia doesn’t want you. If you want to go back home, you can.’” Conditions at the centre, since dubbed a “living hell hole”, were grim: detainees lived in tents with no change of clothing or protection from blazing heat and poisonous snakes. Dr Al Muderis witnessed detainees being beaten by guards; violence and riots often erupted, fuelled by mounting frustration over delays in processing.
Back in Baghdad, however, Dr Al Muderis’ mother Kamila Al Turck was about to get the best phone call of her life. After months of not knowing the fate of her only child, the phone rang. Dr Al Muderis been leant a mobile phone by a police officer while helping out as a translator. "[He] felt sorry for me and said, 'when was the last time you spoke to your mum?’ I said I didn’t know because I had to leave Iraq in a hurry, so he gave me his phone and said give her a call – you don’t know when you will get another chance. So I made an international call to Baghdad. I said, 'I’m in Australia and I’m safe but you might not hear from me for maybe two years… All I could hear was crying."
Dr Al Muderis’ now elderly mother moved to Australia in 2006 and now lives comfortably in a private nursing home in Sydney, fully financially supported by her son.
While some surgeons have a reputation for being aloof and arrogant, it’s clear as Dr Muderis does his rounds with The Weekly that he is adored by his patients, who say he takes a personal interest in them and is always available if they need them. The previous week, a former patient called from a cruise liner in the middle of the ocean to ask his advice after suffering a fall. He has also performed osseointegration for free on patients who couldn’t afford it.
"Munjed is so passionate and positive about this surgery and he really cares," says patient Nicola Carslaw, a mother-of-two and successful sportswoman from Perth, WA, who is currently undergoing the two-stage surgery. "He is so approachable and not arrogant at all. I send him messages and photos and he replies personally. His team is also amazing and you can see how much they think of them by their manners and enthusiasm."
Aside from robotics, the bulk of Dr Al Muderis’ work is hip and knee surgery - albeit with a modern take. Making an incision at the front of the hip, for example, he works between rather than cutting through muscles so hip replacement patients can stand up within hours of surgery.
But his maverick attitude doesn’t always win him fans, especially from the conservative old school. At a medical conference shortly after performing his first osseointegration, he met a couple of his former supervisors. One congratulated him; the other told him he belonged in Long Bay Jail for performing such radical surgery. Given Dr Al Muderis spent three months in maximum security at Karratha for inciting unrest after smuggling cameras into Curtin Detention Centre in a bid to expose conditions, the criticism was stinging even in jest.
“[Osseointegration] is groundbreaking but it’s proven now,” he says. “It’s becoming a standard care and acceptable to clinicians.”
In any case, his first priority is looking after patients rather than seeking approval from his peers. And for Dr Al Muderis – who knows too well what it’s like to be treated like a number – the secret to his bedside manner is simple: “I treat them as human beings.”
As The Weekly went to print, asylum seeker policy was shaping up to be the biggest headline issue in the lead up to the Federal election. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was facing calls for a crackdown, while Opposition Leader Tony Abbott advocated a return to the “turning back the boats” of the Howard years.
To Dr Al Muderis, who understands the issue more comprehensively than most, neither represents a real solution. He points out that there is no “queue” in the chaotic world of refugees. Nor is there the luxury of time: “If you can wait three years for processing, then you are not a genuine refugee.”
Make no mistake: he believes all asylum seekers should be carefully screened. "Detention is important because you need to scrutinise and assess people who are coming in to make sure they are genuine refugees and you are not letting terrorists into the country," he says. "The process definitely needs to be done but not in the way or form it is now. And looking at asylum seekers as scumbags is wrong: they are a slice of the community like any other in which there are the good, bad and ugly." He condemns people smugglers as "criminals" despite having relied upon them on his own journey.
He in unequivocal in his belief that children should not be incarcerated: the mental and emotional toll is too great. And he has some insight: he started up a makeshift school to teach children English at Curtin. "They will be traumatised for the rest of their lives,” he says. "Even today I don’t like the colour green, it puts me on edge: all the barbed wire and fences were that colour."
Rather than rendering asylum seekers helpless, insular and dependent on state handouts by locking them away and preventing them from working when they are released, he proposess a more integrated approach. "I’ve suggested electronically tagging people and sending them off to farms," he says. "They would be happy to pick fruit and learn the language and culture. They could report to a police station or stay at the detention centre at night." Meanwhile, he says, there is also an onus on asylum seekers to adapt to Australian society. "I feel very strongly against people trying to bring their values into Australia."
Today, Dr Al Muderis says he feels “extremely lucky” to live in Australia, a country in which he now feels a profound sense of loyalty, pride and belonging. On the other hand, one might argue Australia is pretty lucky to have him.
This story first appeared in The Weekly's November 2013 issue.

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