My friend, Phil Robinson

7 minute read

It’s not just the legacy of his achievements, but the legacy of his character that will live on.

Phil Robinson was a very good friend of mine.

I was far from alone in that. He was such a good friend of so many of us in rheumatology, someone who threw himself, head first, into everything that our world has to offer. Rheumatology demands certain qualities that bring us together. Amongst our everyday struggles and occasional disagreements, we sometimes forget our special fellowship, driven by our patients’ care, the intricacies of their diseases, and the curious inquisition those diseases demand. Our rheumatology community is defined by our endeavour and enthusiasm.

Phil had it in spades, and for him to be taken away from us so soon, just as he was getting started, is the cruel outcome that has left many of us stunned.

Much has been said and written, because Phil really was known throughout rheumatology, nationally and internationally, to an extent many only realised at his passing. He had bold and innovative clinical ideas which journal editors loved to interact with: challenging axial spondyloarthritis paradigms, sugar taxes in gout, and navigating the uncertainty of covid. He served the ARA across countless domains with his financial acumen and passion for action. He fostered our community spirit, sparking human interaction with one hand and diffusing tensions with the other, and he did the same across the world, through international collaborations and even Twitter. He really was someone who did a lot of things.

What I have spent recent weeks thinking about, though, is not the legacy of his achievements, but the legacy of his character. That is often how we are truly remembered, what lives on, what those of us who remain can live by. What made Phil the person he was?

It personally has been hard for me to write about for someone so close. He was my mentor, who taught me how to do things, gave me wise counsel on almost everything, and made himself available at every turn. He was my collaborator and counterpart, who would banter and josh but also relish getting stuck in to work alongside me, and would genuinely seek out my opinion on anything and everything in rheumatology. He was my personal friend who would message me any time of the week just to ask how I was, the friend who would share a whisky and listen to my life woes, and give me the support we all need from our friends. I needed him, and he was many things to me, too.

Legacy can also be very hard to see clearly in the immediate aftermath, when the unavoidable but paralysing pain of all that loss burns harshly in every pocket of life. It can be very hard to do when thinking of the tragedy of others’ loss – Phil’s loving wife and kids, his father and brothers, his friends from many places, his business partner Hanish, his colleagues across Brisbane in that tight-knit community. At Phil’s funeral I spoke with many of them, shared their pain. We drank whiskies in his honour, but when I went back to my hotel room I cried myself to sleep, not for the first time and not for the last time. There is no clarity in those moments.

Weeks later I now try, aspiring to a calm mind and an even hand. I know my efforts are imperfect, and others have their own memories, but I want to share some of what he taught me by example, marks of his true legacy.

Phil was a person of action. He taught me that sometimes the world needs people who dare to just do things. The COVID-19 Global Rheumatology Alliance only happened because Phil saw it needed doing, and dared to act. A few months later, we wanted to work with Professor Sir Marc Feldmann, the great expatriate Australian of TNF discovery fame, but I hesitated and questioned why Sir Marc would answer my emails. Phil pointed out I had nothing to lose, and dared me to act – and weeks later, Marc was calling us every week and is still our friend. In a way that I will never forget, he taught me the power of belief and endeavour.

He also taught me that such action need not be visible to others to be satisfying. A small but demonstrative example: very few if any will know that he triggered leflunomide coming off streamline authority on the PBS late last year. Reducing inefficiency was a passion, and he correctly saw that needing to prescribe leflunomide on authority script was an anachronism that slowed use of a good but now cheap medicine. Without fanfare or fuss, he lobbied the PBAC, and when it happened and he received their letter of thanks, without publicity he allowed himself to be quietly very pleased about contributing to a slightly better, more efficient world. He taught me that quiet action can bring great satisfaction.

He was not perfect, and occasionally in his enthusiasm he had been the antagonist to some, as most young people with passion tend to. I learned from him such conflicts need not define us. He genuinely reflected on those moments, and had the self-awareness to take the advice of others (including his wife). With fairness as a guiding star, he grew into smoother approaches with more maturity, and I saw it reflected in genuine respect from diverse sources across our community. By action he taught me that past disagreement can be easily superseded by mature respect.

Most of all, I learned from him the power of mentoring, simply for the sake of lifting others up. For him, the beauty of the COVID-19 Global Rheumatology Alliance was its capacity to get important things done by giving opportunities to motivated individuals, no matter their location. He was deeply proud about the opportunity to give chances to those who could make the most of them, and as I contacted his students to tell them of his passing, I saw it in the care he had given every one of them. He cared enormously: for me as his mentee, he cared about me as a whole person, without any expectation of return reward except the joy of seeing others succeed. In our interactive world, our greatest impact is what we give and create for those who follow; Phil taught me the importance of doing so selflessly.

I saw Phil when he was in hospital, a few days before he died, when he was unwell but we all thought he was getting better. The ward had an outdoor terrace, and one day I went out there with Phil, his wife, his mother-in-law, and his two young sons. I will never forget that day. We sat in the meek semi-tropical sun and played Battleships with the kids, Phil teaching his enthusiastic youngest child how to play until Phil got too tired and had to go to bed. Even with a shadow of his usual energy, it was characteristic Phil: the cheeky wit, the guiding hand, the clear and obvious pride. I saw him mentoring his kids, just like he had mentored me and so many others, his natural legacy.

Our impact on others is what defines our legacy. Phil, that is now ours to honour.

The ARA is hosting condolence pages that will remain open until the end of February. They will then prepare a book for Phil’s family capturing messages and photos received. Members can leave a message and/or donate here, and non-members can do so on this page.

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