The end of an era: Dr Leon Clark bids farewell to the San

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For most of the 2,300 staff at the Sydney Adventist Hospital (the San), it’s just another day. There are patients to see, procedures to be performed and lives to be improved.

But for Dr Leon Clark, Adventist Healthcare Limited’s (AHCL) group chief executive officer, it isn’t just another day as much as he wishes it was; it is one of his last at the organisation.

As he sashays through a patient waiting area, returning to his office after a staff member’s farewell morning tea, he spots me. I had heard a lot about the venerable Dr Clark, but his greeting is even warmer and more sincere than I imagined it would be.

“I got caught up,” he says with a grin. “You know how these things go.”

We share a laugh and proceed to the office he will soon vacate. The week has been full of farewells, including his own, and he begins to reflect on his decision to call it a day.

“It’s not something I would intuitively say I’d like to do,” he says. “I love what I do and I’d be lying if I said I was looking forward to stopping, because I’m not. But the time is right.”

On 18 September, the curtain closed on a celebrated career that spanned almost five decades. Dr Clark’s reluctance to walk away is understandable, despite Adventist Healthcare being in the “good hands” of Phil Currie, his successor.

The 72-year-old has dedicated his entire career to improving Australia’s healthcare system. It is a “burning passion” that was ignited by his parents, both of whom worked as nurses at the San.

“The first time I ever mentioned anything about wanting to be a doctor, it got reinforced like crazy,” he recalls. “Back then, nurses worshipped doctors. That was just the pinnacle. I was encouraged to the point that I didn’t want to do anything else.”

A fresh-faced Dr Clark was 25 when he graduated from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery. It was the beginning of his pilgrimage, or, as he refers to it, his “first career”.

He worked as an obstetrician and gynaecologist, specialising in in vitro fertilisation (IVF), but it wasn’t a field he was initially attracted to.

“As a medical student I thought that was the last thing I’d do,” Dr Clark says.

“But in reality, I found it very satisfying. Looking after people and helping them to have babies when otherwise they wouldn’t be able to have them, what more do you want?”

The work took him here, there and everywhere, and he continually broadened his knowledge and skillset. Dr Clark strived to better himself and the health system in every way. His appetite was never sated.

He went abroad in 1973 and worked in England for two years before returning to Australia. Settling in Newcastle, he set up the Lingard Fertility Centre in 1984.

In 1988, Dr Clark established the Australian IVF Directors Group. He served as chairman until 1990 and his contribution was recognised two years later when he was awarded the IVF Director of the Year award.

Then came the chance to do something entirely different. Dr Clark was given the opportunity to transition into his “second career”, working less in a clinical capacity and more in the area of hospital administration. His destination: the San.

“The CEO, for reasons that are a complete mystery to me and are still a mystery, came and asked me if I wanted to work here,” Dr Clark says.

His reputation preceded him. The hospital was prompted by a recommendation from the Australian Council on Healthcare Standards.

Dr Clark commenced working at the San in 1991, but it wasn’t all plain sailing to begin with.

“It was difficult to make the decision to come here,” he recalls. “I came here without a job description.”

The nature of the transition was unique. He initially worked three days a week at the San and spent the others practising out of a friend’s IVF clinic in the Sydney suburb of Westmead.

Treating patients wasn’t something he was ready to give away. “I asked my friend if he had room for anyone like me,” he says. “He said, ‘Fantastic, how many days do you want to work?’ I said, ‘It depends on how much I like the other one’.

“I could have worked more with him or more at the San. It was a great way of transitioning. I don’t know of anyone else who’s had a similar opportunity to transition like that.”

The San eventually won him over. Dr Clark moved to four days and then five. Along the way he was made the hospital’s deputy chief executive officer, a position that came with the ability to effect change.

Dr Clark had heard about the San and how it was “pushing the boundaries”. That was part of what attracted him, but perhaps the challenge it presented was what enticed him the most.

“When I came here, the San was a great hospital with a great reputation, but they weren’t as great as they thought they were,” he says frankly.

“There was a level of complacency that was obvious to me and it needed to be dealt with. Change had to begin. Nothing had changed here.”

It took some years for change to occur, but when it did, the results were astounding.

In 1996, the San opened the first private emergency care facility on Sydney’s north shore. It was a monumental decision that changed the hospital in many ways.

Dr Clark was a vital cog. He was always in the thick of it and it’s why his colleagues called him ‘The Spanner’.

“I like pushing the boundaries a bit,” he says. “I’m not a risk taker, but I think sometimes it’s good to get people thinking outside the box.”

Dr Clark became chief executive officer in 2002 and was at the helm when the Australian Private Hospitals Association (APHA) named the San as the best hospital with more than 70 beds in 2006.

As one of more than 300 hospital members of APHA, an organisation he later became president of, it was quite an achievement and it’s something he counts as a career highlight.

“That was a real honour because it’s a large industry and a very competitive industry,” he says.

In 2011, the year preceding Dr Clark’s appointment as group chief executive officer of AHCL, the San was at the centre of another private hospital ‘first’. It became the first private facility in New South Wales to open a clinical school.

Dr Clark says it “blew the public sector away in terms of that actually being able to be done”. The school’s first students graduated last year.

Dr Clark was a visionary leader, his work inspiring and his passion to improve the private healthcare industry unparalleled. His 24-year contribution to the San was so great that the organisation last year named its new 12-storey facility in his honour.

The LW Clark Tower is home to a new maternity, women’s health and children’s unit, an integrated cancer centre and an additional 12 operating theatres.

“My 24 years at the San has been the highlight of my professional life,” he says. “It has been my great privilege to lead, work with, and alongside, so many talented people. I have seen first-hand how the San and its team compare with other facilities Australia-wide and I am proud that the San is genuinely revered as an Australian healthcare icon.”

His career was fulfilling and fruitful, but he’s quick to insist “it’s not a lot when you compress it all down”.

Dr Clark is humble like that. It’s just another reason why he’ll be missed so greatly.

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