It is with deep sadness that we farewell Professor Monica Cristina Robotin, who passed away last Tuesday 16th March surrounded by her family at Mater Hospital North Sydney.
Monica was appointed Head of New Course Development and Quality Management at the University of Notre Dame’s School of Medicine, Sydney in 2016, and will be greatly missed by her colleagues and students at the University – many of whom counted her as a close friend and were inspired by her passion, intelligence and warmth.
During her years at Notre Dame, Monica was instrumental in developing new postgraduate programs in health and building the Graduate Diploma team, but also dedicated a great deal of her own time to supporting and mentoring her students. She was someone who came into work every day doing the hard work that needed to be done, and doing it with vigour, dedication and unfailing generosity. She is described by those who knew her best as courageous, tenacious and resilient.
Born in the city of Oradea in, what was then called the Socialist Republic of Romania, Monica grew up in a world where food was rationed weekly and political dissent was dangerous.
Monica begun studying medicine at the Institute of Medicine and Pharmacy in Bucharest and paid for her university by working as a translator and model. She had a talent for languages, speaking French, German, English and a bit of Japanese, which turned out to be particularly useful, as she was chosen by the Communist Party to accompany a Romanian dignitary to Japan and act as a translator. In this Monica saw an opportunity to leave Romania for a better life, and she began hatching a plan to escape, unbeknownst to anyone around her, for fear of detection.
In Japan she worked up the courage to break away from her security guard and seek asylum in the US Embassy, renouncing her citizenship and leaving behind everything she knew, as well as an unfinished medical degree. These were the first steps towards a new life in Australia.
Upon arriving in Australia, Monica worked hard to restart her medical training in an Australian university, as they didn’t recognise her previous study. Eventually she was allowed to study at the University of NSW and graduated with Honours.
After graduating Monica specialised in cardiothoracic surgery, and met her husband David Johnson on her first day working in Westmead Hospital in 1989.
Before long she was offered a fellowship to work at the Marie Lannelongue Surgical Centre in Paris under Claude Planché, one of the top paediatric cardiothoracic surgeons in the world at the time. Under Planché, she operated on the hearts of newborn babies, saving many who are still alive today, and contributed to surgical research. The experience set the foundations for her lifelong passion for research.
Following her achievements in France, she became the first woman to be awarded the Graham Travelling Fellowship from the American Association of Thoracic Surgeons, allowing her to work at the St Louis Children’s Hospital in the United States. She relocated to America with David and their son Tom. There, she continued operating on newborn and young babies, leading surgical research projects, while also working as a paediatric heart transplant surgeon until moving back to Australia some years later.
Faced with the ‘boys club’ culture of cardiothoracic surgery back in Australia, Monica struggled to find work and decided to make a career change, building on her love of research to begin working in epidemiology and public health. She completed a Master’s in applied Epidemiology, where she looked at hepatitis B and C and AIDS-related non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in Australia. Concurrently, she completed a Master’s in Business and Accounting.
Following her HIV-AIDS research, she moved to Bethel in South Africa and for two years worked towards lessening the impact of HIV-AIDS in that part of the world, before returning to Australia and becoming the Medical Director of the Cancer Council, where she remained for many years. During this time she was able to lead a project that looked at hepatitis B in migrant Australian communities, passionately driven by her own experience as a refugee.
Finally, Monica was appointed as a Professor at the University of Notre Dame Australia, where she worked until just before she passed away, having made a difference to the lives of countless people in need with her skills in surgery and medicine, as well as her kindness and selflessness.
It was here at Notre Dame that Monica developed some of her strongest friendships and we farewell not only a gifted doctor, cardiac surgeon, teacher and researcher, but a dear colleague. The whole University community offers their sincere condolences to Monica’s loved ones, including David and Tom who, following in his parents’ footsteps, is in his first year studying Medicine at Notre Dame.
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