Episode 60 - Men's health with Peter Dornan

Renowned sports physiotherapist and Queensland's 2020 Senior Australian of the Year shares his advice on men’s health.

Listen to Peter's story below: 

Men's health activist and physiotherapist to the Wallabies, Kangaroos and Queensland Reds, Peter Dornan, has led an exciting life.

During his 50-year career, Peter became the go-to physio in Australian sport and revolutionised the way sports injuries were treated. 

He also wrote several books, became a renowned sculptor, mountaineer and battled prostate cancer. 

When Peter first moved to Brisbane in his teens for boarding school at Brisbane Boys College, he had no idea the direction his life was headed. 

“I was born and raised on a peanut dairy farm outside of Kingaroy and I was set to become a fifth-generation farmer,” Peter said.  

“With about two months to go before graduating, Dad sold the farm, which completely threw me. I had no other plan but to become a farmer.”

With his life’s plans now out the window, Peter took an admissions clerk job at Greenslopes Hospital, where he discovered his passion for medicine after watching a doctor perform a gastrectomy (the removal of part or all of the stomach).

“I watched him do a five-hour gastrectomy and was completely inspired. It changed my life at that moment,” he said. 

“I knew I wanted to do medicine, but that was a six-year course, and I didn’t have mathematics behind me, so I opted for physiotherapy, which was also at the hospital.”

In his first week of practising, Peter was contacted by the secretary of Queensland Rugby Union to look after players on the sideline. 

“I started the next week during a Queensland and New South Wales game and introduced a lot of ideas such as running on to the field and being alert to everything that occurred so you could see how the injury occurred and what to do after it happened,” he said. 

“I wrote the first book on sporting injuries and became the first physio for the Reds when they were just called Queensland Rugby.

“I was also the first physio for the Wallabies, Queensland Rugby League, the Kangaroos and ended up doing it for soccer, basketball, netball, lifesavers and whatever sporting teams were around.”

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At 52, Peter was dealt a cruel blow when diagnosed with prostate cancer.

“I did a blood test and found out I had cancer down there, and after seeing my father suffer a terrible death of bowel cancer very young, I elected to have surgery straight away,” he said.

“The surgery left me with quite devastating side effects, including incontinence (any accidental or involuntary loss of urine from the bladder or bowel motion, faeces or wind from the bowel).

“I quickly went into depression as no one knew how to treat incontinence back then. Every time it would leak, it would remind me of the terrible stages I went through, and I got PTSD from that.”

Feeling alone, Peter placed an ad in the paper to see if anyone else was going through similar issues and held a meeting of 70 men in an RSL club.

“There were all these men going through similar issues and no one knew what to do,” he said.

“We decided to meet once a month and after a while the Cancer Council started to realise nothing was being done for men with prostate cancer.

“The Cancer Council invited us to sit in their rooms for the next 20 years, where we would get professionals to talk about all the side effects and  treatments.

“We later set up the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia, which is now the peak body in Australia.”

Peter said weirdly, he now views his cancer diagnosis as a “gift.”

“It was a pretty rotten package, but underneath there was a gift,” he said.  

“You have to survive your way through, and that gives you a certain amount of strength and courage. Once you realise, you’re going to live there is this great elation for living.

“I was given three years to live, and it was my goal to beat that and to climb a mountain when I was done.

“So, when healthy, I started training to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. I did it, and it was tremendous.”

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