In 1993, a Salvo nurse stationed in PNG read about a plastic surgeon’s work in War Cry. Two decades on, the lives of the plastic surgeon and the little PNG boy he helped remain forever entwined, writes Jen Vuk.
A video of Dr Malcolm Linsell and Wesley Koni speaking to ABC Radio journalist John Cleary. Courtesy Salvo Studios.
At some point in our lives many of us will face that life-changing moment when we’re forced to search deep within ourselves and see what we’re really made of.
For plastic surgeon Dr Malcolm Linsell that moment happened in 1993 when an Australian Salvation Army officer based in Papua New Guinea contacted him out of the blue after reading in War Cry about his work as a plastic surgeon.
That officer was the then Salvation Army Captain Lorraine Mack, a nurse, who was stationed at a small, remote PNG clinic. In the article Dr Linsell had said something that had struck a chord with Lorraine—‘Every person has the right to feel good about themselves’.
And then one day, a severely burnt small boy was brought into the clinic.
As Dr Linsell recalls in his new book An Ordinary Man, An Extraordinary Life*, ‘The story was that he had been ill, lying on a bench and being tended to by his mother in their hut. Next to him was a fire,’ he recalls.
‘His mother left momentarily to attend to her other child and in that instant the child rolled off the bench and straight into the fire. His head, face, chest and right hand caught alight and had burned deeply into his flesh before his frantic mother returned and patted out the flames.’
The boy’s name was Wesley Koni. As Wesley lived in a remote village, Lorraine knew that he was likely to die without intervention.
Looking at the photos of Wesley that Lorraine had sent him via email, Dr Linsell quickly concurred.
‘I had not seen anything like it,’ he writes of Wesley’s injuries, which included the boy’s head being fused with his chest, his right hand which was nothing more than a stump and his mouth being attached to the left side of his chest.
‘However, I thought there might be something I could do.’
And that’s when Dr Linsell’s own Salvation Army background came to the fore. Dr Linsell was raised in a Salvation Army family and his brother Derek was a Salvo officer at Cranbourne in Melbourne’s north.
‘Derek contacted church member Colin Smith to lead the logistical team,’ he writes. ‘Colin was a big man with an even bigger heart. He is one of the greatest organisers I have ever known and he committed himself to helping Wesley.’
‘Operation Wesley’ had officially swung into action. The first step was to fly Wesley and his father Koni to Melbourne, but it was only when the tiny boy was on the operating table that Dr Linsell realised that he needed to address more than just the extent of Wesley’s injuries.
Dr Linsell well remembers feeling overwhelmed, but at no point did he feel he could walk away.
‘It is not in my nature to say, “I can’t” if I haven’t even tried,’ he tells Warcry.
‘If I genuinely thought I could not have helped Wesley I would have found someone who could. Furthermore, I was not on my own. We had a first-class surgical team, with the operation to be performed in a first-class facility, with the support of countless people in the Army and the community. I was playing my part in a play that was much bigger than me.’
Dr Linsell is also quick to say that ‘Wesley would not be alive if it wasn’t for Lorraine. She gave a little boy under her care a chance, changing his life and mine forever. Yes, I think about that day often because she was the catalyst for so many people to come together to make a difference.’
And perhaps that’s why the title for his book—An Ordinary Man, An Extraordinary Life—resonated so strongly for him.
‘I don’t think I’m the best at anything in particular,’ he says. ‘Admittedly, I have some talent and skill (along with many others). What I do have is a determination to be the best that I can possibly be in the area upon which I’m focusing. If I don’t do as well as I can, I let myself down and those around me.’
Dr Linsell doesn’t shirk from revealing less salubrious parts of his life and career. There was his long, hard road to medicine, his decision to abandon skin cancer work and concentrate solely on cosmetic surgery (which he dubbed ‘surgery of self-esteem’). Then there was his divorce from his first wife Fiona and a disastrous business venture in Singapore.
There’s also the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to a sexual abuse incident when he was seven.
‘Even as I re-read these pieces, I still feel some of the terror I felt as a little boy,’ he says, ‘some of the elation I felt when I got into medicine and then into plastic surgery, some of the anguish I experienced when my first wife left.’
Dr Linsell remarried late last year, and while he no longer attends the Salvation Army church, he says that ‘even in the darkest times I have had an unshakeable faith that there is always a way through’.
‘Be still and know that I am God (Psalm chapter 46, verse 10) has never left me. My faith has given me the certainty, the security and the knowledge that when I am aligned with correct purpose, things tend to work out for the best.’
Arguably, you couldn’t have found a better purpose than giving a little boy a second chance in life. Wesley ended up staying in Australia, enduring numerous operations, and currently works for the Salvation Army in Macquarie Fields, in Sydney’s south-west.
After a 20-year hiatus, the two reunited last year when Wesley went home to PNG to see his parents for the first time in a decade. The reunion, which Dr Linsell was there to see in person, was filmed by Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes.
‘Wesley and I will be friends forever,’ he says. ‘We keep in touch through Facebook and Instagram and communicate through private messages. Next month, we’re travelling together to Port Moresby to open the Salvation Army’s Red Shield Appeal in PNG.’
In addition to running clinics in Melbourne, Cairns and Rockhampton, later this year Dr Linsell plans to open a ‘bespoke service’ in Sydney for ‘every patient, whether they have skin cancer or are requesting a cosmetic procedure’.
‘Every person has a right to feel good about themselves. If I can contribute to that process, my life is truly blessed.’
*An Ordinary Man, An Extraordinary Life, published by New Holland Press, RRP $29.99.