Prominent Surgeon Dies 'Trapped by Flames' in Australia Fires

Marcia Frellick

January 06, 2020

Clayton Lang, MBBS, 43, a prominent plastic surgeon in Adelaide, South Australia (SA), who specialized in hand surgery, died along with his father on Friday in a Kangaroo Island brushfire.

Dr Clayton Lang

The Australian Associated Press reported that the two men were returning to the family property on Kangaroo Island when they were trapped by flames after fighting a nearby fire for 2 days.

Clayton Lang supervised surgical training at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in South Australia and consulted privately at Dextra Surgical in Adelaide, Maitland Medical Center, and Gawler Medical Clinic, according to the practice's website.

Rhea Liang, MBChB, a colleague of Lang's, tweeted after she learned of the tragedy: "Shocked. Utterly shocked. Clayton was a colleague, a true gentleman, and a skilled surgeon."

Liang told Medscape Medical News she had worked closely with him when they were young consultants. While she remains on the Gold Coast, he had moved to work nearer his family, she said.

"He was a kind and gentle man who didn't stand on hierarchy, treating everyone the same. He extended the same respect to his patients, who trusted him deeply. No matter how long or stressful the operation, I never saw him raise his voice or lose his composure," Liang said.

Once, during an operation that lasted more than 8 hours, two blood vessels were joined, but the blood wouldn’t flow, which meant a stage of the procedure that took 3 hours would have to be repeated. Team frustration was evident.

"Clayton said, 'Oh I think we're traveling alright,' looked around at the team and asked if anyone needed to scrub out for a cuppa or bathroom break before we kept on. That was his special ability to think of others, even at a time when his back must have been aching as much as mine," she said.

"In my mind's eye I see him as the fire swept down, still as calm as ever, thinking of everyone else before himself. Somehow that image, for me, is equal parts heartbreaking and comforting."

Liang said that she hadn't been aware he was fighting a fire in the days before but that she was not surprised.

"For someone who laid his body on the line in the service of the community on a daily basis as a surgeon, he has made a final sacrifice doing the same for his home community. It will be up to the rest of us to remember and honor him by continuing to look after the patients that he cared for so deeply."

Family "Heartbroken"

The Australian Medical Association tweeted its condolences, noting that he was "well known to many in the AMA, both in SA and nationally."

He was a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, secretary of the Australian Hand Surgery Society, secretary of the Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons, and a member of the Australian and New Zealand Burns Association.

Police said the men died on Playford Highway in the center of the island.

Lang was the youngest of four sons of Dick Lang, 78, a well-known outback bush pilot and tour guide known as "Desert Dick," and Helen, Dick's wife of more than 55 years.

The Lang family issued a family statement: "Helen and the family are heartbroken and reeling from this double tragedy and are touched by people's thoughts at this difficult time."

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Clayton Lang had two daughters with his wife, Christie.

Plastic Surgeons Australia tweeted: "ASPS is deeply saddened to learn that one of our members, Clayton Lang and his father Dick died yesterday in the bushfires on Kangaroo Island. Our thoughts are with their family, our South Australian colleagues, especially at Dextra Surgical and our members."

Another tweet from longtime colleague David Caldicott read: "Absolutely heartbroken to hear about the death of Clayton Lang, a great doctor, teacher, and friend with whom I had the pleasure of training & working, in another life. My profound commiserations to his family, & the many, many folk who knew and loved him."

According to news reports, about a third of Kangaroo Island has been ravaged by the fires. The fires had been burning for weeks on the island but escalated severely on Friday with changing weather conditions.

This season's devastating fires in eastern Australia have killed at least 23 people in New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia.

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