Koala bears incredible namesake

Beau the baby koala enjoys afternoon tea. (Louisa Jones) 234203_08

Adorable baby koala Beau first appeared in the Independent last week while meeting with junior rangers, who knew little of the incredible origins of his name.

Luke Voogt speaks to Jirrahlinga Koala and Wildlife Sanctuary volunteer Robyne McKeown about her life-saving surgery in Switzerland this February, to find out more.


Snow falls gently as Robyne McKeown gazes out the window of her Swiss home, after undergoing lifesaving open-heart surgery in February.

The Jirrahlinga Koala and Wildlife Sanctuary volunteer and “part-time” Point Lonsdale resident has lived in a small village just outside of Bern since flying over last July.

“2020 was going to be a really exciting year for us,” the 66-year-old tells the Independent.

“My son Kyle was set to be married in June in London, with a big wedding party in Valencia, Spain, in September.

“Guests and family were coming from the USA, Australia, the UK and France. Unfortunately all of this had to be postponed.”

She and her husband Ken also had to cancel a trip to Scotland and flights from Australia to Europe in April, and missed two weddings in Switzerland.

The couple had previously lived in Switzerland for eight years beginning in 1995, when they moved with their sons, then eight and 10, as Ken took on a job in Bern.

Their sons studied at the International School of Berne before moving to England for university.

Robyne, a radiographer and a bachelor of arts graduate, worked as a fitness instructor and taught Zumba classes in Switzerland.

When Ken retired in 2013, the couple bought a house in Point Lonsdale, where Robyne still teaches Zumba.

“But with our sons both now living and working in London, we decided to keep a place in Bern and live part-time in Australia, part-time in Switzerland,” she explains.

Ultimately, their roots in Switzerland allowed them to fly over in mid-2020, a time when international travel was off-limits to almost everyone.

“Even being in Switzerland, we still were unable to visit our sons in London, my brother in Scotland, or my sister-in-law in England,” Robyne says.

“I stayed at home most of the time.”

Then, in November, after months of lockdown, Robyne suffered health issues and her GP referred her to a cardiologist.

She underwent several tests, which eventually proved to be life-saving.

“One of these tests found that I had a myxoma, a benign tumour, growing in the left atrium of my heart,” she says.

“Although there were no symptoms, leaving the myxoma could have proved disastrous.

“I was very lucky that the doctors found the tumour before it proved fatal. My guardian angel must have been at work.”

The possibility of the tumour growing further and affecting her heart function, or other complications, left her only one option.

“My decision was a difficult one, but the only one sensible – the myxoma had to go,” she says.

On February 1 Robyne entered the Hirslanden Klinik Beau-Site hospital in Bern and underwent open-heart surgery to remove the tumour.

COVID-19 restrictions meant she could have no visitors during nine days recovering in hospital and three weeks of rehabilitation.

“I was collected at the hospital by a masked driver and taken to the rehab facility in The Alps,” she remembers.

“The first person I met in my rehab room was in full protective gear and stuck a swab up my nose before formally admitting me.

“We sat, distancing and filling out forms while the COVID test developed – negative, of course.

“It was all terrifying, especially with no friends or family around. Thank God for smartphones and the internet.

“The only way I got through all of this was with the help of my medical teams and the staff at the hospital.

“Their professionalism, expertise and care were exemplary. Luckily, most of the staff spoke some English and I got by with my limited [Swiss] German when necessary.

“After a month, my German definitely improved.”

In a bid to thank her surgeon, cardiologist, GP and other medical staff, she contacted Jirrahlinga Koala and Wildlife Sanctuary, which she joined as volunteer in late 2019.

“Ken and I had visited Jirrahlinga a few times, and when the bushfires decimated the Australian native animals, we decided to go and see what we could do to help,” she says

“We both signed up as volunteers and Ken took on the task of replacing and renewing the information posters at each of the enclosures.

“We also went to the [Castlemaine] dingo conservation centre and did this there too.

“We became good friends with [Jirrahlinga director] Tehree [Gordon] and have offered our help in any way we could.

“I mostly worked in reception and the cafe, but also sewed Joey pouches, face masks and scrubs, when needed.

“I was also lucky enough to work with Tehree and learn how to feed the baby animals.”

So Tehree was happy to oblige when Robyne asked to “adopt” a baby marsupial, on the condition they named it Beau in recognition of the hospital and its staff.

Which is how adorable baby koala Beau, born at Castlemaine but currently on holiday at Jirrahlinga with mum Tilly, came by his name.

Robyne has shown a photo of Beau to the doctors, surgeons and specialists who made the life-saving diagnosis, performed the surgery and looked after her during her recovery.

“They were all thrilled and are looking forward to a follow up, especially when I can make it back to meet him myself and take more photos,” she says.

She cannot wait to meet the cute and cuddly Beau, who is currently enjoying some of the best eucalyptus leaves Barwon Heads has to offer at Jirrahlinga.

“I have his photo as my screenshot on my phone and look at it constantly as a source of inspiration for my continued rehab,” she says.

“When speaking with my cardiologist and showing him the picture of Beau, I said to him, ‘much better than a box of chocolates’. He wholeheartedly agreed.”