Reflections on Dr Richard Harris at Property Congress

Richard ‘Harry’ Harris exits stage left. The audience hold their applause until he is out of sight.

A standing ovation doesn’t seem appropriate. Perhaps out of admiration, those in attendance remained seated while he stands.

It is the first time I have experienced such deeply profound respect.

‘Dr Harry’ is a remarkable man with a remarkable story.

Dr Richard Harris SC OAM is the joint 2019 Australian of the Year along with Dr Richard Challen SC OAM. Dr Harris is an anaesthetist and experienced cave diver who also has expertise in medical retrieval. Dr Challen is a veterinary surgeon, technical diver and cave explorer.

Both men played crucial roles in the rescue of the Wild Boars - 12 junior football players and their assistant coach trapped in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai ProvinceThailand.

They were also awarded the Star of Courage, which recognises acts of bravery by members of the community.

Dr Harris and Dr Challen were recruited by British cave adventurers John Volanthen and Richard Stanton, who found the boys and their coach on a ledge four kilometres from the cave’s entrance, to plan and execute the astonishing operation.

The Adelaide anaesthetist is quick to point out that he believed it was mission impossible. However, the boys would face a slow and painful death from infection if efforts weren’t made to extract them.

He banked his professional credibility on a calculated but risky strategy, because any errors, hesitation or second-guessing, once the plan was formulated, could lead to catastrophe.

In Tasmania, we are not unaccustomed to complex rescues. In 2006, Todd Russell and Brant Webb were saved after spending 14 days one kilometre below ground at the Beaconsfield Gold Mine.

The recovery team were experienced, skilled, courageous and heroic. Sadly, their colleague, Larry Knight, perished in the rockfall. This was different. Foreign rescuers interacting with a foreign government with foreign children in a foreign land. And with 10,000 people on site and just as many ideas of how to undertake the rescue, the audience was left shaking their heads that a successful retrieval was the eventual outcome.The events have been shared many times. However, listening to Dr Harris makes you think deeply about how he was able to inject 13 people unconscious with Ketamine and teach divers to administer more doses when extracting limp youngsters underwater.

Perhaps some of the answers can be found in the Australian identity. The doctor is tall, laconic and understated.

He has a dry sense of humour and doesn’t appear to covert praise. He has that self-deprecating nature, which is often associated with insecurity or uncertainty but leaves you feeling you would want your life in his hands. Dr Harris is aware of the anecdotes that will generate laughter during presentations. Although, the untimely guffaws or gasps that emanate from a sense of shock as he describes the children and the scene must never sound normal.

Nor the audience tears that flow from a sense of sadness interspersed with overwhelming admiration.

The experienced cave diver has a quiet, yet obvious self-belief that is far from arrogant. He is practical in thinking and pragmatic in leadership with the importance of delegation never far from his explanation.

Dr Harris admits he is not a sporting type and has found happiness in pursuing his cave diving passion. Heroes can be middle aged, balding and a little overweight, he reminded us. Do things that make you happy, he encouraged the audience.

As leaders, we spend so much time coaching, counselling, planning, strategising and facilitating professional development.

But maybe we need to focus just as much on the here and now. Because as Dr Harris prompted us, being united for a common cause has the power to overcome most difficulties and differences.

Deep in the cave there were three friends he deeply trusted. That didn’t mean he was blindly trusting of others when planning and executing the rescue. Rather, irrespective of rank or qualification, the international team were able to collaborate to save lives in extraordinary circumstances.

My family was privileged to attend Dr Richard Harris’ SC OAM keynote presentation. And one day our children will understand the poignancy and tenderness of the applause.

Vale former Thai Navy SEAL Saman Gunan (Kunan).