Ask anyone about Australia – especially people outside the country – and you’ll get the same response: the prevailing notion is that of a country infested with deadly creatures ambushing human beings from every corner, ready to kill. Some even say that it is a place that was never meant to be populated by human beings, given how hostile it is to them. Dr Nimo laughs all of it off.
“No, Australia is not a dangerous place,” he offers as reassurance. He should know. Because Dr Vasilios Nimorakiotakis is one of Australia’s leading experts in toxicology.
“That’s exactly the reason I went into toxicology,” he says, explaining how knowledge chases fear away.
It all started in Karratha, WA, where Dr Nimo (as most people call him) was working as a junior doctor.
“I looked after a kid that was bitten by a sea snake and we had trouble identifying the bite and finding the antidote.” What he realised was that there are some gaps in education regarding snakes and spiders, “despite the fact that we live on an island where we have some of the most venomous creatures,” he says.
“That’s when I decided that I need to learn more myself, and in the process I became passionate, I found it so interesting that I wanted to learn everything about it.”
Like, for instance, that “human beings are the most venomous creatures in the world. We’ve got venom glands too, we just don’t think about it this way,” he says and gives a quick lesson on snake venoms: “Snakes aren’t actively hunting humans, we accidentally come across them,” he explains.
“Because they don’t have arms they use venom to paralyse their prey and break them down and digest them, they use their venom to eat, to survive, and each snake has its little venom composition.”
This is the kind of knowledge he shares as an Associate Professor at Melbourne University, though you’ll never hear him introduce himself this way. “I don’t like titles,” he says. “It’s the way I’ve been brought up. I grew up in a big family, we all learnt to be equal and respect each other. My parents taught me to treat the cleaner and the rubbish collector in the same way.” In fact, he remembers calling his teachers thio and thia much to their bemusement. “That’s a Greek thing,” he laughs. “When you grow up Greek, you learn to call any older person this way and my teachers were always wondering: what is that kid saying?”
This kind of aversion to formality is what lead to him being known as ‘Dr Nimo’ to his friends and patients. “I save my full name for my paperwork, but I wanted to make it easier for people to pronounce it, so I abbreviated it.” The truth is, that in his line of work there is no time to waste on trying to pronounce a name. Because his professorial work is only one of the hats he’s wearing and toxicology is only one of his areas of expertise.
Dr Vasilios Nimorakiotakis is the Deputy Director of Epworth Hospital in Richmond, a Staff Specialist at Sunshine Hospital, and a Senior Staff specialist for Queensland Retrieval Services. His main field is emergency medicine. Which means that he’s never bored. “I do paramedical retrieval medicine,” he explains. “Part of my training is to manage people in big car accidents. I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie,” he admits, talking about “that buzz where people might die or live depending on what you do with them. That’s why I picked emergency medicine, for the thrill, but also for the diversity. No day is the same as any other day.”
Not everyone is suitable for this kind of work.
“I get bored easily, that’s why I picked emergency medicine,” he explains, narrating how he tried anesthesiology, plastic surgery, and intensive care, only to get bored. “I’m a determined person,” he says. “I pride myself in terms of outcome, and I always treat my patients and the people around me with respect; I’m a great communicator; I’m calm under crisis, so I’m the first to try and diffuse a situation.”
These are all parts of his personal traits, that he’s been putting to use in his career, but it’s also part of a know-how he gained through experience, a know-how he’s now happy to share with his colleagues in Greece.
“There are a lot of us Greek Australians who are emergency specialists,” he says and describes how they’re coming together to assist their colleagues in Greece. “We all share this passion for knowledge and we want to transfer it back in Greece, where there is no specialised emergency college in medical schools. So we’ve been invited by the Hellenic Society for Emergency Medicine to help them set up a training initiative.”
In the end it all boils down to the small schoolkid, addressing his elders as thio and thia, his Greek values.
“The biggest influence in my career path has been my upbringing and the values that my mum and dad have instilled in me,” he says.
“They were both very intelligent and they didn’t have the same opportunities that I had in terms of schooling. They both lost their fathers at a young age and had to grow up very quickly. So when they had children – there are four boys and one girl in our family – one thing was not negotiable: that education was a priority, it was very important. And they taught me to never give up. When I was in Year 10, I had a career counsellor who said that no-one in my school had ever got to medicine. So I just went on and did it. Because I’m a stournari. If I set my mind on something, there’s nothing stopping me.”
His patients and the broader community should be grateful for this.