In caring for more than 2,000 asbestos victims, Bruce Robinson has had to break very bad news, many times over. He’s had to watch the last flicker of hope fade from the eyes of dying men. Soothe them as they sob, support them as shock takes hold, lend an ear as they confess remorse. “I’ve had so many men tell me they regret not spending more time with their children,” he recalls. There is, he adds, “hardly a more poignant moment.”
Such declarations in the face of impending death prompted the leading professor of respiratory medicine and father of three — to Simon, 30, Scott, 27 and Amy, 24 — to co-found a pro-parenting campaign called The Fathering Project. But during the course of his research, Bruce discovered an even greater motive to help men develop solid bonds with their children. “I found that in the absence of a strong father figure there’s a big problem in the community when it comes to drug taking and depression. I thought ‘Right, let’s try to intervene and fix this’.”
What started as parenting tips scribbled in a book has since morphed into DVDs, seminars, web information and three books that have impacted the lives of more than 400,000 children. The feedback, Bruce says, has been wonderful. “I’ve had men saying their lives have been completely transformed. One woman said her husband was once a workaholic but had become a new man. She said ‘He loves his kids, he comes home early and our whole family is better off for him having gone to that Fathering Project’.”
Bruce was one of the lucky ones, blessed with a socially conscious father who imparted strong values. He was president of the RSL, served as a deputy mayor and started a program to keep kids off the streets of Bassendean. “My father was never interested in his own glory, only in helping other people. He believed in leaving the world a better place.”
The “Basso boy” grew up playing cricket and footy, swimming in the river and burning around streets on his pushbike. The Robinsons were the quintessential working-class family; his mother a housewife and his father a clerk in a factory. He is proud of his roots, describing his childhood as “rich and wonderful in that classic sense.”
A gifted student with a rebellious streak, Bruce was crowned dux of Cyril Jackson Senior High School but was also the first student to cop a caning there. “A teacher told me to stay away from this steep hill, so what did I do? I rode my bike down it.”
It’s this mix of maverick and brains that has seen him effect so much change. Encouraging better parenting is, after all, not his day job. The 61-year-old is one of the world’s leading lights in mesothelioma research, developing a world-first blood test to help early detection of the deadly disease.
Mesothelioma is a menace. It takes up to 30 years for symptoms to develop; many sufferers are not diagnosed until the cancer has progressed and most die within 12 months. The breakthrough by Bruce and his researchers has been hugely significant, though he is not resting on his laurels. “That blood test is the best in the world but we need a better one. And we’re determined to find one.”
During his early days at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, Bruce was horrified by the hopeless prognosis for sufferers. “I was aghast at how many victims of asbestos-related disease we were sending home to die. We could offer them nothing.” He rang colleagues all over the world to gather data for mesothelioma research but “there was nobody with a single cell line, so we had to start from scratch” (cell lines are permanent cell cultures that divide indefinitely, making them invaluable to researchers).
In two months, his research team celebrates the 20-year anniversary of creating the world’s first mesothelioma cell lines. “I’ve worked with terrific senior people who have become good friends and bright young junior students who always inspire me. We’ve managed to do some great work that is hopefully helping people with asbestos cancer out there.
“But in the process I also deal with the victims. I consider it a privilege to care for people who are dying and find it profoundly moving to walk the journey of death with a patient. I always think the patients deserve a gold medal for bravery. I’ve had four patients with mesothelioma in their 20s.”
Bruce’s mantra is a simple one — better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. When the tsunami hit Asia in 2006, he flew straight to Aceh and rolled up his sleeves. The scenes made him weep. “It’s pretty raw to see the devastation caused. You see a child’s tricycle in the mud and you know what’s happened. Everything is still there — the clothes, the photos, and the kettle on the stove. And the survivors are suffering greatly. But that’s what is motivating. If you love your neighbour you get out there and help, simple as that.”
A quiet, unassuming man, the sixth generation Sandgroper is somewhat shy about his nomination for Western Australian of the Year. “I’m not motivated by fame or money or power,” he explains. “I’m just glad The Fathering Project will get some exposure. Most men haven’t had terrific dads. Many aren’t aware of how important they are as father figures. They think it’s optional. Once they do realise, they usually don’t know what to do and that’s where we come in.”
And there’s an added bonus. “It has absolutely helped me become a better father. My daughter wanted me to drill her a hole in the wall so she could put a picture up. Normally I’d drill the hole, but this time I gave her the drill and I said ‘I’ll teach you to do it’. What I’ve learnt is that you need to empower young women. As a father, one of your jobs is to empower them to be strong. You can’t do everything for them and protect them at the same time.”