Accidents, friendship and giving back
Neos Kosmos speaks with Eleftherios Smaropoulos, the first Greek paediatric surgeon ever to be accepted on sabbatical at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital
You would expect a mother to speak highly of the doctor who saved her daughter's life, but the way Elizabeth Sidiropoulos talks about Greek paediatric surgeon Eleftherios Smaropoulos, goes beyond gratitude. There is admiration, affection and deep respect. Ms Sidiropoulos says, "Not only is he an excellent doctor but he has the highest ethics of anyone I've met."
High praise indeed, especially coming from a Leading Senior Constable of the Victorian police force. As an officer of 24 years standing, Sidiropoulos knows a thing or two about honesty, integrity and ethics. The story of how Sidiropoulos met Dr Smaropoulos in Greece, and how he consequently came to stay with her in Melbourne, while on Sabbatical at the Royal Children's Hospital, is every parent's worst nightmare.
Sidiropoulos was holidaying in northern Greece with her family in 2005 when her ten year old daughter Anastasia, had a horrific accident in the village of Thiriopetra. She lost control of a bicycle with faulty brakes and went down a two metre embankment and into a ten foot high brick wall.
Sidiropoulos says "she suffered three severe fractures on the skull with multiple blood clots on the brain, cuts and bruises all over her face and body and the impact on her lungs left them bruised and almost black, from what the doctors told us later".
Elizabeth Sidiropoulos and her cousin rushed the child to the local hospital in Aridea, but it did not even have an x-rays machine.
"The doctor on duty put her on a drip and into an ambulance." The next two hospitals were also unable to deal with the magnitude of Anastasia's injuries, and so she ended up in Thessaloniki, at Hippokration General Hospital, the largest hospital in northern Greece - almost eight hours after the accident had occurred. "You can just imagine the state I was in, not knowing if my child was going to survive, in total shock and crying uncontrollably," Elizabeth Sidiropoulos says. Luckily for them, Dr Eleftherios Smaropoulos was on duty that night.
When I ask Dr Smaropoulos how he met Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, he says, "Her daughter had a serious brain injury, due to a bicycle accident, they came to our hospital, I did what I had to do…I was very pleased because the child had an uneventful recovery."
And then adds, "It was routine for me." Perhaps so, but for a mother it would have been anything but routine.
Anastasia required three weeks hospitalisation. In time however, she made a complete recovery. She is now a bubbly 16 year old, in year 11 at school. I can't help but think that it's a little spooky that her name means 'rebirth', in Greek. "He saved my daughter's life and he remained at the hospital after his shift had ended to make sure she was out of danger," Sidiropoulos adds.
In the years since the accident, Sidiropoulos and her family have kept in touch with Dr Smaropoulos; and so when Dr Smaropoulos was accepted by the Royal Children's Hospital to do a sabbatical, he asked Elizabeth Sidiropoulos to help him find accommodation in Melbourne. "She told me that she will provide accommodation and she would be glad if I would spend these three months with her and her family," Dr Smaropoulos says. Eleftherios Smaropoulos, 44, has a quiet and self assured manner that suits his profession.
He is the type of person any parent would trust with the life of their child. He has a Masters and a PhD in medicine, and has studied both in Greece and in England, where he was an intern at Kings College in London in the mid 90s. Extra experience at Melbourne's Royal Children's Hospital was a natural progression. He says, "I have the privilege and honour to be the first Greek doctor ever accepted at the second best children's hospital in the world (after Boston Children's Hospital)."
Paediatric surgery is one of the most difficult specialist fields. Basic medical studies take six years, then an extra seven years qualified you to perform surgery.
Dr Smaropoulos says, "That was the reason I came here. I have completed my academic skills so it was time to continue with my clinical skills," adding, "Medicine is a life commitment…You have to work really hard all of your life, study all of your life." And how has he found working in an Australian hospital? "Really interesting…Australians in my field manage to do something difficult, which is combine European thinking, which is innovative, with American thinking, which is more focused on resources."
He adds, "It's very important for medicine to have both, because progress has to do with both aspects. If one of these two is missing then you cannot have progress, you just practise medicine." Professionally, the past three months have been very worthwhile for Dr Smaropoulos. He has been able to work alongside top paediatric surgeons and learn new techniques that he will take back to Thessaloniki; but how has his time in Melbourne been socially, and how has he found Australian Greeks of the diaspora?
"They are really Greek, sometimes they feel more Greek than the native Greeks. What pleased me most is that they have a prosperous life, and that means that they work really hard and this country has compensated them by giving them good financial and social status." How will Dr Smaropoulos describe us when he gets home, I wonder? "I'm going to say that, first of all they are friendly and polite…and second that they are doing really well here; and also they care about Greece." "They show you what Greek hospitality means and also what Greek philotimo is, which is a word with nothing similar in the English vocabulary."
"Doesn't it mean hospitality?" I ask.
"No, philotimo means something that makes you feel that you have to give the best of yourself towards the other." Who am I to argue, his English is a lot better than my Greek.
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