A wheel of fortune is how Associate Professor Munjed Al Muderis describes his life so far. He’s seen devastating lows on that wheel since fleeing Iraq in 1999 and gratifying highs pioneering osseointegration surgery - the merging of human and robotic - to miraculously change the lives of amputees.
New SBS documentary The Surgeon & the Soldier follows his work and the bond shared with one of his patients, British veteran Michael Swain, who lost both his legs after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan in 2009 at 20 years old.
Dr Al Muderis’s story is a stunning example of what Australia can gain from giving asylum to those who genuinely need it.
It was the day that would alter the course of a young surgical resident’s life forever. Late in October 1999, Munjed Al Muderis headed to the surgery theatre complex at Baghdad's Saddam Hussein Medical Centre as usual, only to be confronted by a horrific ultimatum.
Republican guards and members of President Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party were ordering staff to amputate part of the ears of three busloads of army deserters. The situation quickly escalated when the head of the department refused the order.
“They simply took him to a car park, they put a bullet in his head, and they turned to us and said, ‘Now, ladies and gentlemen, we have attracted your attention. Anyone who shares this gentleman’s view, please come forward, otherwise proceed with our orders,” Dr Al Muderis recalled during a 2015 TEDx talk.
The surgeon managed to slip away, hiding in the women’s bathroom for five hours until he found a moment to escape the hospital.
“From there onward, I become an escapee, a traitor - and the treatment for traitors is execution.”
Treacherous journey to asylum
Dr Al Muderis had gone from a privileged position in society as a descendent of the second royal family to a man on the run. His family smuggled him out of Iraq to Jordan, and from there he travelled to Malaysia where he organised passage by boat to Australia.
It was the treacherous kind of journey we’ve heard of so many times - a leaky boat overloaded with asylum seekers, most of whom were in dire physical condition upon reaching Christmas Island.
"There were 165 people on a leaky boat that was not seaworthy," Dr Al Muderis told SBS. "The sea was very rough; it was raining all the time. By the end of the journey, there were less than 10 who were conscious. Everybody else was pretty much comatose and drowning in their own body fluid."
From there, Dr Al Muderis would spend a hellish 10 months in Curtin Detention Centre in the Kimberley, his name replaced by the number 982. He was punished for daring to confront authorities about the treatment of asylum seekers and placed in isolation in jail.
He described his welcome to Australia in his memoir, Walking Free:
“I was treated like a criminal. I was verbally abused and constantly told I should return as soon as possible to my homeland. In fact, the government would do everything to help me get there. There was one flaw to their argument. I couldn’t go back to my homeland, Iraq. Well, not if I wanted to avoid imprisonment, torture and, probably, execution.”
Making his way to the top of the wheel
On his release from detention in 2000, Dr Al Muderis quickly set about climbing the ladder to the pioneering status he enjoys today, receiving his first pay cheque as a doctor a year to the date of arriving on Australian soil.
Within two years, he had secured a place in the exclusive Australian Orthopaedic Training Program, facing a backlash from the beginning.
“I received a rude wakeup call,” he said at TEDx, recalling when two colleagues confronted him. “To my face they said, ‘The Australian orthopaedic standard has dropped that much to allow a refugee to be one of us.’ I pursued my passion and I wanted to show these bastards that I can do it, and I did it.”
Making The Terminator
But he’s done much more than that. He’s turned orthopaedic surgery on its head, pioneering a revolutionary technology called osseointegration, a radical and controversial treatment that fuses a metal implant with living bone. A robotic limb is attached directly to the skeleton connected by muscles and nerves, giving functionality back to the patient.
At TEDx, Dr Al Muderis explained how Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cybernetic limbs in The Terminator inspired his childhood dream of being a surgeon.
“With this technology, I serve disabled people by making them half-human, half-machine, similar to The Terminator movie, which is a movie that I watched at the age of 12. It inspired me to pursue [my] passion making this technology a reality.”
He says the technology brings people “as close as possible to normality - even a bit better.”
But the treatment has been met with fierce opposition from some in the medical fraternity, and the surgeon has been branded unethical and a maverick for carrying out what some say is a dangerous procedure.
“This is criminal,” one of his peers told him. “I’m sure Long Bay Jail has a room left for you and I’ll send you flowers.”
Dr Al Muderis says he understands the backlash: “After all, I’m making a robot that’s sticking out of the skin and there is a risk of infection.”
But the success of his pioneering work is irrefutable. Michael Swain was facing life in a wheelchair before making contact with Dr Al Muderis and the impact of the bionic technology on his life has been nothing short of miraculous. Swain can now walk his dog every day and play a spot of golf in his backyard.
Dr Al Muderis, an Australian citizen since 2006, has said his origins continue to drive his work.
"Living in a war-torn country like Iraq, I'd seen a lot of people who lost their limbs and I always wanted to do something about that."
Watch The Surgeon & the Soldier on SBS on Monday at 7:30pm.