How his mum’s illness brought Dr Chris Brown’s family closer together

Dr Chris Brown’s father inspired his love of animals, as well as his cheeky sense of humour. Yet Chris will tell you, the most impressive thing about his father is his loving care for wife's battle with Alzheimer’s.

The Brown family aren’t a touchy-feely clan. Yet the pure love radiating on set today between father Graeme and his youngest son is evident as The Weekly joins the two vets for a day at Wylie’s Baths in Sydney’s Coogee, just a few beaches along from Bondi, the iconic location where Dr Chris Brown sprung to fame.

The banter is constant, the smiles wide, the laughter booming. While there’s some friendly teasing going on, the duo is quick to reassure us that it’s all in fun. In fact, when the other is out of earshot, each will rush over separately to tell us the pride they have in their respective achievements – as well as the traits they most admire.

“Everyone likes my dad more than me,” Chris says with a grin when we mention how charming his father (the man who sparked his interest in the animal world) is. “Everyone thinks he’s more charming than I am. More attractive, more interesting. I mean, that’s basically the summary.”

“I’m so proud of him,” Graeme will say later in a break between photos. “He’s a very caring person. He’s loving. And he can turn his hand to anything. He’s much smarter than me. I’m a bit mundane when you think about what he’s done.”

Mundane is not a word we’d use to describe either Brown. Or, in fact, any member of the family. During his own veterinary career, Graeme travelled throughout Australia, as well as across the world, thanks to being granted a Churchill Fellowship to learn more about all creatures great and small. On occasion, his three kids – Tim (now an environmental engineer), Matt (a biologist), and Chris – along with wife Anne (a physiotherapist) would join him on trips.

“When they got home, they were all complaining because their friends would go to Disneyworld and they didn’t get to go because they spent their time looking in swamps,” Graeme laughs. “But Chris and the other boys were all exposed to animals. I did a lot of wildlife work and I’d bring home koalas and possums and little animals. And we bought a farm when Chris was quite young and had horses.”

Dr Chris Brown's family - his mother Anne and father Graeme.

Then there was the veterinary practice. As a child, Chris tells us, he recalls sitting at the breakfast table and listening to his father making calls to owners of animals who hadn’t made it through the night. Hearing him console them, I remember going to school and thinking, ‘That’s a really hard job. Those are hard phone calls to make’. But Dad did them so well,” Chris says, acknowledging recent studies showing the mental health toll that can be experienced by those within the profession.

“The most undervalued part of being a vet is just how much you give emotionally. A vet has to be so many things. You’ve got to be a counsellor. To be someone who can enable people to get through what is one of the most traumatic times and saddest moments of their lives – that takes a lot from you – a lot of heart and emotion. And sometimes I find, in the profession, it doesn’t leave a lot for people at the end of the week for themselves.

“I was fortunate in that, from a very young age, I was exposed to the reality of that and went into the profession with my eyes open. And at the same time, knowing you have to celebrate the wins.”

While Graeme often spent long hours working and many weeks travelling, that would leave Anne to wrangle the trio of rumbunctious boys single-handedly. Close in age, the brothers would rough and tumble together around Newcastle, the NSW north coast town they grew up in.

Dr Chris Brown and his father Graeme.

The elder two, laughs Graeme, called their baby brother “Sparkles”. Today they call him “Champ”.

“It was a very lighthearted and playful way to grow up,” adds Chris. “Mum had to bear the brunt of corralling us three boys, who were very different but still very close. It was such a caring and nurturing upbringing.” While Graeme may have been the one to gift his son an interest in animals, it was Anne who nurtured his creative side, something that has seen him become a firm favourite with television viewers since Bondi Vet launched back in 2009.

Anne, Graeme tells us, had visited the BBC as a teenager, when her family was based in London for a few years. It struck a chord and left her determined to work in television as a scriptwriter. Her dad was a leading doctor and didn’t think much of this as a career choice, so Anne’s family convinced her to study physiotherapy instead. Still, her passion for the arts never left her, and she continued to explore those
creative pursuits and encouraged her children’s own forays into that world.

“He gets the flair for doing these creative things from his mother rather than me,” Graeme says. “There’s a genetic factor there.”

“I’m a strange blend of art and science,” Chris admits. “The science has been a huge part of my career and I’ve taken that from Dad, but I genuinely enjoy colouring outside the lines. I enjoy the creative process. I enjoy entertaining people and making them think, or surprising them in different ways. And I get that from Mum.”

Anne’s spirit has been very much with us today, both in the stories the two men share about her, and in the palpable love they have for one another.

Dr Chris Brown.

It was six years ago – after some time of caring for her at home – that Anne’s battle with Alzheimer’s reached a point where an aged care facility became the inevitable next step. It was difficult, Graeme shares. But the boys rallied around their father, helping him navigate what Chris, in the past, has termed “the long goodbye”.

“Her knees are giving up on her a bit but she’s quite bright and I try to get her to smile every day,” Graeme says of how Anne is currently faring. “When I say hello to her, normally she’ll smile. She knows I’m there.”

“We’re not an overtly affectionate family, we’re not big huggers or kissers, but we’re a family whose actions show love,” Chris says of how the Brown clan have banded together.

“We are always there for each other, and I think Mum’s illness has brought us all closer. Dad’s been remarkable. He’s been incredibly supportive, giving and compassionate – with a hint of trademark veterinary pragmatism. We’re all in awe over what Dad does and how much he’s there for Mum. She’s had the disease for 12 or so years now, and it’s all been about making her feel comfortable and loved and making sure she’s happy in her own world.

“[But] it becomes as much about the partner as it does about the patient, or the person with the disease. For Dad, we need to make sure that he doesn’t feel lonely. That he feels like he’s got people to talk to and vent to and laugh with. It can be a very tough life, being the partner of someone with a debilitating condition like that, a degenerative condition.”

Dr Chris Brown as a baby with his mother Anne.

Father and son speak almost every day. In his early days as a vet, Chris had his dad on speed dial to talk through any difficult cases or to get a second opinion. And they haven’t stopped sharing passion projects and interests. Recently they oversaw the build of a beach house together, which has since become a treasured family retreat. “It was such a nice thing for us to work on together,” Chris says, as Graeme jokes about his son’s lack of skill with a hammer or saw. “It probably brought us closer – or at times threatened to tear us apart! But that’s renovation, right? It always runs over time, over budget and you get thrown some pretty significant curveballs that you try to make your way through.”

This is a perfect segue into the reason for our meeting today. When Chris left his long-time TV home at Network Ten to head across to rival Seven last year, it made headlines around the country. But in the months that have passed since, his chisel-jawed face has yet to appear on screens, even though he’s filmed a variety of projects. That’s set to change as the first of those debuts.

Dream Home is a reality renovation show which sees six pairs of everyday Aussies lend a hand to overhaul each other’s houses. Chris hosts, while Lana Taylor (of Three Birds Renovations), award-winning interior designer Rosie Morley, and top buyer’s agent Simon Cohen judge.

“It’s a very relatable life project that tests even the strongest,” Chris says of his first cab off the rank. “I feel like I’m able to relate on a human level to what they are going through – the challenges they’re facing. And I can help find the humour and heart in what they are experiencing. I’m not an expert – we have judges for that – but I’m there to go along for the ride with them.”

Another non-expert subject he’ll soon tackle, alongside Sonia Kruger, is hosting the upcoming season of Dancing with the Stars. The series has already been filmed, and Graeme was a proud dad watching in the audience as his son took on another new challenge.

Dr Chris Brown.

“You’ve heard of tone deaf, and then you meet my dad,” laughs Chris. “When I told Sonia my dad was in the audience, she asked where he was. I said, ‘See the one guy in the whole audience who’s clapping out of time? That’s my dad’. If there’s anything questionable with my dance moves or my musical ability, that’s where it comes from.”

Graeme has long been a fan of bring your dad to work day. He visited his son a few times on the set of I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! – the perfect excuse for the pair to go animal spotting in down times. And when Chris was in the early years of Bondi Vet, the duo filmed an episode of the show together.

“It was the old story of the old bull trying to tell the young bull what to do,” Graeme says. “I find it great how Chris can adapt himself to all these different things. He does his homework, and he speaks with authority. He’s shown so many skills that I’ve never had.”

The admiration is mutual.

“I admire Dad’s patience,” Chris says, when asked if there’s one quality he particularly respects about his father, but then he rattles off half a dozen more. “He’s an incredibly hard worker. He’s good humoured and he can laugh at himself, which is very much a Brown family trait. And I admire his ability to just keep going, despite some pretty significant obstacles that have been thrown his way in life. Dad is the most pragmatic person, and I hope that I have his level of energy and his outlook on life when I’m his age.”

Dream Home premieres on Sunday, May 26 on Channel 7 and 7plus.

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