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It was 9:30 pm. I was giving a lecture on cancer surgery to 85 primary care vets. I was like a top prosecutor delivering my closing argument to the jury which was sure to put the criminal away for ever. I glanced up from my computer and I saw most of my nurses lined up on the back wall of the lecture theatre. They NEVER came to my lectures. Not only were they there, but they stayed until the end. I swelled with pride because they actually cared about what I had to say.
I confidently advanced my PowerPoint presentation. An experienced lecturer, I knew what was coming next, so I didn’t even have to look down to see what the slide said. It was the final piece of the puzzle that was going to pull it all together. My pupils would walk away tonight in stunned silence, enlightened about how to treat cancer in animals. Expecting faces reflecting an epiphany, I was shocked when the audience burst into laughter. I flashed back to 1st grade in the playground, looking down as the dark stain appeared in my pants, my classmates pointing and laughing derisively at my humiliation.
I looked down at the computer screen and hoped that what was there was not reflected on the screen behind me. Tenneille, my receptionist, had injected a slide in my presentation, a work of art which rightfully belonged on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It was my face, photoshopped on Borat’s mankini-clad body, hair poking out in all the right places. Not only did I have the humiliation of that photo on the screen, but the realisation that my nurses really weren’t interested in what I had to say, only the spectacle that was about to unfold.
The laughter died down and I finished my presentation. Gradually everyone shuffled out of the lecture theatre, having gotten more than they bargained for out of the evening. I was overall pleased with the night when Anna, my head nurse, reported to me that she overheard someone saying as they left “I just don’t understand why he would dress that way.”
I had started doing lectures when I arrived in Australia to build up caseload and rapport. By the time I had done the “Borat” lecture, we already had a reasonable caseload. But it hadn’t always been that way. When I first arrived in Australia, things were completely different:
Complete. Deafening. Silence. Recollections of my first months are sepia-toned with tumble weeds dancing past the front door. I could almost imagine an old cowboy shuffling past with a donkey on a lead not far behind. When I left the US, I had a very busy surgical practice outside of Washington DC. I was the only Fellowship-trained surgical oncologist on the entire east coast of the US. I was booked weeks in advance. I had submitted 6,500 biopsies in 6 years there and 3,400 of these were of tumours that I had removed with curative intent.
I arrived in Melbourne on the 14th of August 2004. It was 6 degrees C and raining sideways. I hit the ground running and visited 66 primary care practices in 8 days and put 1600 km (1000 miles) on my parents-in-law’s car, all within about 30 kms of Highett. For 11 days, I received not a single phone call, saw not a single case. I was really questioning the wisdom of giving up my busy practice, beautiful home and great friends in America. What. Had. I. Done?
On the 11th day, my vet nurse burst into my office yelling “There’s a vet on the phone for you!!! There’s a vet on the phone for you!!!”
Excitedly, I picked up the line. The vet on the other end said “Is this Charles Kuntz?”
“Yes.” I said, hardly able to contain my excitement.
“Is your wife Kate Savage? I’ve got a horse for her to see.”