From a young age I was captivated by Antarctica and the heroic stories of its early explorers. But it was only a few years ago I realised that as a doctor, I could go to experience it for myself, through the Australian Antarctic Program. So I applied, passed the interview and was admitted to go to Antarctica for 90 days last year. Before I could leave, however, I had to weather four-and-a-half months of intense training. This included survival training, fire safety, station safety, quad bike operation and dealing with group-dynamics training — as well as a stint in Melbourne, where I learned dentistry, physiotherapy and how to take X-rays. When I finally arrived at Antarctica’s Casey Station, I was amazed by the beautiful and overpowering environment. We were on the continent’s edge, only 3880km south of Perth, yet the lack of smells and colour was so different to anything I’d ever known. Fortunately, it was the summer, so we had sunlight for more than 15 hours a day and the station was buzzing with activity. It made it easy to develop a routine. The medical facility was brilliant. After 72 years of sending people, including doctors, down to Casey Station, the Polar Medical Unit had evolved to the point where it was prepared for almost any scenario and I was never without anything I needed. In fact, the facility was our station’s ‘MacGyvering’ haven. Tradies, carpenters and diesel mechanics on the base often came to see if there were any spare syringes, blunt needles or bits of tubing they could use in their own projects. Despite this, we still faced several challenges. We had almost 160 young, healthy people to care for and my new context meant that I’d have to make calls on whether to send them home based on simple things like skin lesions, lumps or weight loss. These were big decisions since it would affect their research or projects, but the alternative was staying for the winter — where they couldn’t be extracted for 6-9 months if their symptoms worsened. I also had to find a way of balancing being with people socially and maintaining a professional distance, which meant it could be isolating at times. Still, I participated in several social events, including one of the newer traditions where personnel would go for an Australia Day swim (wetsuit not included) off the boats’ landing beach. Given the hypothermia risks, we had a maximum of five minutes in the water before having to try to walk out. Funnily, spending three weeks telling people how cold 0-1° Celsius water was going to be did not prepare me for how cold it actually was. After I jumped in, I felt my body shut down — my lungs tightened and I was struggling to breathe. I felt every blood vessel in my skin crunch shut, with shudders of pain coming from each one. It took me eight hours to warm up again after that. And this was in summer! Goodness knows how people do it in winter. I really appreciated the experience during my time there. It gave me confidence in my abilities as a generalist. I think generalism is the future for a lot of parts of Australia. In a country like ours, I don’t think it makes sense for our resources to be localised to major cities when we have so many diverse communities separated by such great distances. In Antarctica, there’s no elderly people, kids, pregnant women, chronic disease or drug and alcohol problems — so it’s a very different medical spread down there. But it has empowered me to think that if we can have such a holistic medical solution down in Antarctica, why can’t the same things be happening in rural Australia. This is where things like telehealth, using local networks and understanding referral pathways are essential to bringing the quality of health services that we see in cities to people in remote areas. These thoughts have spurred me to continue my rural generalist training with ACRRM. Right now, I’m excited to be working at Ochre Medical Centre Queenstown. It’s still pretty remote, located 170km north-west of Hobart, but with any luck, I’ll get to go back to Antarctica one day.
For 30 years, I’ve been a GP in the Northern Rivers region of NSW — where I combine clinical work with an active role in medical education. Where possible, I use creative techniques to help doctors understand the personal side of medicine. I am frequently invited to run creative writing workshops for doctors, which is a bit odd when I consider that, until 15 years ago, I’d never have even dreamed of calling myself a ‘writer’. About that time, I was looking after a woman in my practice with very severe depression and, while it was a challenging clinical scenario for many complex reasons, I thought we had developed a therapeutic bond, and that my care was helping her. She was a poet and had written some poems about her experience with depression. I was interested to read the poems, and she was happy to share them with me. Flicking through the thick pile of poems late one night, I realised one of the poems might have been about me. I started reading it, hoping to find myself reflected as her hero, her knight in shining armour. Unfortunately, the poem turned out to be very derogatory. She described me as being naive, cruel and ignorant. It even finished with a line about how she might as well find a vet. I was shocked. Filled with emotions. None of them very positive. It was late at night. There was no one to talk to. I looked at the glass of red wine next to me, thinking there is not enough red wine in the world to quell the emotions I was feeling. It was then that I was struck with a thought that changed the course of my life. It went something like this: ‘Well, if it was good enough for her to write a poem about me, maybe I could write a poem about her.’ It wasn’t a very mature thought and it was unusual because I hadn’t written a poem since primary school. But as I picked up the pen and started writing, the pen led me somewhere a -little bit unexpected, as the anger and resentment quickly dissolved and I felt an im–mense release of emotion. The poem I wrote that night may not have had the greatest literary merit, but it did a lot for me and I was inspired to do more. We piloted a writing program for doctors aimed at reducing their risk of burnout and compassion fatigue. This was a great success and I have continued this work ever since. I presented some of my ideas in a keynote address at a big medical conference in the US last year. And I have been to England, Portugal and New Zealand, and all around Australia. It is like some form of cosmic joke that the dark place of reading that poem late one night years ago has taken me on such
Dr Hilton Koppe
Northern Rivers, NSW
Patients say the most amazingly funny things. That’s why I started thinking about writing a book with all of these humorous stories in it. The idea actually started with Medical Observer. About 10 years ago the magazine had a system where it asked for humorous stories to publish in a column, and I must have submitted about 30 stories over the years. At the same time, I was thinking about writing a book to help educate the average patient — I’ve always tried to educate patients if time allows. Then one day, while I was swimming, the thought occurred to me. A book on health would be pretty boring, so why not combine the two ideas? I could just write one book about health issues with a humorous twist. So I came up with the idea for my book: Take a simple drive to a healthier life. The link between looking after yourself and looking after your car is not an original one, but it does get the message across. The aim is to promote simple health messages so that the average person knows what they can do to help themselves, while acknowledging that luck does play a role in health. Over about four months, I wrote the book in dribs and drabs in the evening. As I went along, I realised I had no idea how to publish anything. I got someone online to help edit the book and provide guidance on the publishing process. It was all self-published. It’s very hard to get a book published professionally because it’s got to be commercially viable. I haven’t made my money back but I’m not miles behind. I spent about $2000 to self-publish the book. Now that I’ve broken even, more or less, I just made it available as a free e-book on iTunes. I don’t get a cent from the downloads but I have no qualms about that. As a GP, I have always seen it as part of my role to educate the patient about their condition, as well as treat them. Often you use all your time for the initial problem, but sometimes you can do a few preventive things. Over the years you get all these bits of paper in your filing cabinet and I try to give people handouts relevant to their condition. It seems people will spend money on those they love and care about, but won’t look after their own health until it’s too late. The big problem is always that sustained change is hard. It’s hard to measure how it helps, so maintaining the will to change is difficult. Every time I see a patient I try to remind them how to improve their health.
Dr Roger Smith
I’m passionate about making sure Australians have access to good healthcare. I’m very aware that many don’t see their doctor as often as they should, so I try to provide up-to-date information through media appearances. People might see me on morning television speaking about the latest study on heart disease. They may be stuck in traffic and hear me discussing the flu vaccine. They could even be using their iPad and read one of my articles on decreasing screen time. Hopefully, some of what I’m saying in the background sinks in or ignites a conversation about improving their and their family’s health. A few years ago, I was asked if I’d like to host a season of my favourite TV show, Embarrassing Bodies. It was originally filmed in the UK and I loved the way it was designed to “titillate and educate”. Viewers might tune in for a bit of light-hearted entertainment, but they come away with an improved knowledge of the human body, increased empathy for others struggling with illness, and more motivation to improve their own health. I auditioned for Embarrassing Bodies Down Under, and came away with a presenter’s role, even though I had little experience in front of the camera. I was thrown straight into the deep end, holding consultations in a brightly lit clinic on the back of a truck in Parramatta. Telling your personal story on camera can be stressful, but having your intimate medical examination filmed can be very confronting. I was unsure if any patients would turn up. But over a few weeks of filming, hundreds of patients came through our Embarrassing Bodies clinic. Some people had been living with terrible medical conditions for years, and it was rewarding to be able to give them a formal diagnosis and a treatment plan. It was also rewarding to know that the audience at home was learning more about themselves too. ‘Education by stealth’ is a well-known phenomenon. And viewers with problems covered on the show were known to see their GP in the following days.
Some of the feedback we got showed how effective it can be. One person told us: “My 17-year-old son learnt how to check his testicles from watching your show. He found a lump and got treated early for cancer.” The program isn’t on-air any more, but I’m continuing my efforts to provide good health advice to people in an entertaining way. My latest focus is battling the rise of ‘wellness warriors’ and internet ‘influencers’ who dish out false information about health. Social media gives these charlatans, who often have minimal scientific knowledge, a platform they have never had before, which means they can easily provide sick people with advice. The danger of misinformation is real, and it makes me even more determined to provide good, science-based information to people who need help.
Dr Brad McKay
I’ve been really blessed in my career as one of the town’s GPs. I really fell on my feet when my wife and I arrived here 47 years ago. Somewhere in that time, I went from being ‘the young Doctor Rose’ to ‘the old Doctor Rose’, but I don’t mind. I knew right away, in my first year in Taree, that I’d come to the right place. I had no anticipation of general practice at the time, let alone rural general practice. I came to Taree from Sydney in the early 1970s to do my ‘country term’ as it was known in those days — back when I was a senior resident at the Royal North Shore Hospital. At the time, I was thinking along the lines of specialising in paediatrics, or perhaps anaesthetics. It was during that country term that I met my lifelong friend and colleague Dr Bruce Hunter. We stayed in touch after I left for the UK with my wife Diana. He wrote to us during our travels, never forgetting to mention there was an open invitation to join his practice upon our return. I remember thinking while I was in the UK, doing my diploma in child health at the University of London, that I reckon Taree might have the mix of medicine that I want. Lo and behold, who should be waiting for us when we touched down in Sydney but my parents, Diana’s parents and Dr Bruce Hunter! He was a wonderful mentor, and because there was no paediatrician in the region in those days, and because of my training in London, I soon became known as ‘the kid GP’. I never kept track, but I must have delivered about 3500 of the town’s babies in my 35 years doing obstetrics. One of the most defining experiences of my career happened in the first year. That was when I knew for sure we’d come to the right place. I was looking after a newborn baby who was quite sick. Although we had stabilised him, the baby needed special care in Sydney. In those days, we didn’t have breathing machines, so a nurse and I would transfer such cases to Sydney by air ambulance. But both were busy, so we called the commercial airline about to leave and explained the emergency. Not only did they hold the flight up for us, but they made room for us in the back of the plane so that we could continue to hand-ventilate this baby all the way down to Sydney. The pilot asked all the passengers to stay seated while we got off the plane to be met by the ambulance, and the passengers — most of them townsfolk — clapped. But the part that really moved me was when we got back to Taree because, for the next week, three or four people rang every day to see how ‘our town baby’ was going. That’s Taree in a nutshell, really.
Dr Colin Rose
Two years ago I moved to Thursday Island for a remote, tropical adventure. Thursday Island is one of 274 islands that lie between the northern tip of Queensland and Papua New Guinea. The blue azure waters, laid-back lifestyle and close-knit community provide a wonderful backdrop to practise interesting and logistically challenging medicine. No two days are ever the same and the medicine here is never boring. Some of my favourite clinics require a morning helicopter or ferry ride, which is always a much better way to start the day than commuting in city traffic. Clinics are often varied and include acute presentations, minor procedures and complex primary care. I have a particular interest in women’s health, so I love yarning to women about family planning and if women are interested, I’m able to offer them a Mirena, so they don’t have to travel away from their home and family. My ability to offer women’s health services to some of the most remote parts of Australia is one of my favourite parts of this job. Co-ordinating the retrieval of unwell patients from the remote islands to Thursday Island Hospital can be challenging, especially if there’s rough weather or logistical issues prevent our retrieval helicopter from flying. When there are retrieval delays, I can find myself managing an unwell patient from a distance and without the ability to take a history in person or to examine the patient myself. We see our fair share of tropical diseases, including dengue and melioidosis, envenomation syndromes (both snakes and marine), rheumatic heart disease, autoimmune disease, as well as non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Having said that, some of my favourite consults involve caring for elders who still maintain the island way of life and keep healthy by walking, gardening, fishing and eating a traditional diet. I often laugh with them, telling them that they make my job so easy because all they need to do to stay off any medications and to keep doing more of what they’re already doing! I work with a wonderful team of doctors, nurses, allied health professionals and health workers. I learn from my colleagues as well as my patients every day. Torres Strait Islanders have a strong culture and a rich history, both of which influence their complex health beliefs today. Their stories and lives are inextricably linked to their islands and surrounding seas. It’s not unusual for a turtle or a coconut tree to play a pivotal role in a story about why or how someone became sick. This makes their stories unique and it’s such a privilege to be a part of their health journey. My weekends are full of outdoor adventures, including boating, biking, hiking, fishing and camping. I am often reminded of how lucky and privileged I am to live in such a unique place, a place that few people in the world will ever take the opportunity to visit.
Dr Alex Hofer
Thursday Island, QLD
I’ve come a long way from suburban kid to GP, to Wallabies team doctor, to racehorse owner and back to suburban GP, and I have no plans to retire any time soon. What has linked it all in my 40 years of medicine, and keeps me going today, is a competitive streak and a passion for all forms of sport and physical activity. I’m one of the handful of inaugural fellows of the Australasian College of Sport and Exercise Physicians. Of course, when I first started out, sports medicine wasn’t a very well-defined field of practice. Despite that, I soon found myself getting involved with sports teams of various kinds, including as the doctor for the Queensland Reds rugby union team. Through that, I went on to become the team doctor for the Australian national team, the Wallabies. It was in the late ’80s and early ’90s when Australia was playing well. They were a great group of guys, and it was fantastic travelling the world with them. But at the time, I was also developing a growing interest — some might call it an obsession — with horses. As a youngster, I had always loved the animals even though I had never had an opportunity to ride one in suburbia, with parents that weren’t particularly well off. Once I graduated from medicine, though, it didn’t take long for me to get together with a few colleagues to buy a racehorse. And the worst possible thing happened to me: it kept winning. It wasn’t long before I was hooked and started breeding racehorses. Unfortunately, I wasn’t particularly successful in that endeavour, so I moved into breeding and training performance horses for eventing at Highborne Farm, a beautiful property here on the Darling Downs in southern Queensland. It’s a real family affair. I find that raising horses is a lot like being a GP because great horses aren’t created in one day; they are nurtured over time. As with general practice, on any given day you have to be part obstetrician, part surgeon, part physician and even nutritionist, because anything can happen. It’s a lot of work, and when I go to my practice three days a week, I jokingly say to my patients that I have come to work for a rest. It keeps me fit and healthy though. I’m 70 now, and I’m seeing the children of the children I used to treat many years ago. But I’ll keep going as long as I can, while I’m still enjoying it and as long as I feel like I’m helping people.
Dr Cameron Osbourne
It was in 1992 when a friend of mine, Martha Brown OAM, knocked on the door of my small general practice in Orange, NSW. Martha asked if I could be the doctor for a camp run by Camp Quality — the charity that provides support to children with cancer and their families, including retreats. I jumped at the chance to help out. It was a large camp of about 150 kids and volunteers and lasted eight days. Although the camp was exhausting, I revelled in the chance to work my butt off to help make a difference to some of these kids. Every day, medications had to be supervised, dressings changed, and cuts and scratches examined. Tummy-aches, homesick kids and volunteers injured from mucking around with the children all needed medical assistance. A medical team was on duty 24/7. During the camp, a teenage girl had a chat with me. She had been on chemotherapy and was concerned about her future fertility. Basically, I had a little talk with her using what knowledge I had, and she seemed quite happy with that. I didn’t think much of it. Unfortunately, several months later I heard the poor girl had died. Her mother got in touch with me and thanked me for having that talk with her because it was something that was really playing on her mind and she had been too shy to bring it up with her own doctor. Medicine is a caring profession and we should remember that an opportunity to help is an opportunity to enrich our lives. To be blessed with medical skills is one thing, to make the best use of them is what we need to aspire to. It’s inspiring to witness what kids with cancer endure and how resilient they can be. When it comes to volunteering, I find that I’m most appreciated for just being myself. It’s not hard to volunteer — just being there makes a difference. Doing what I can and knowing what I can’t do is of the essence. It also certainly makes a change from my everyday work as a GP. It gives me a chance to meet some amazing people, and I’m not only talking about the kids. Many of the other volunteers remain lifelong friends. I have volunteered for Camp Quality for 26 years now and we are always in need of medical volunteers. I have also volunteered in Africa and at other events in Orange. There aren’t many organisations who wouldn’t welcome the help of a doctor.
Dr David Howe
It’s no wonder they call the Commonwealth Games ‘The Friendly Games’, because they truly are. As the Chief Medical Officer for the Gold Coast games in 2018, I had the privilege of working with a multidisciplinary team of highly trained doctors, physiotherapists, nurses, podiatrists, optometrists and radiologists. It’s an experience I will never forget. It all began in 2014 when I was appointed to the role, four years out from the event. I have always been passionate about playing sport and sports medicine. As a GP, it complements a large part of what I already do. I have been involved in providing and organising sports medicine coverage since 1994, including volunteering at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 and the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006. My role this time around became steadily busier leading up to the games and involved recruiting and rostering a team of 1400 volunteer clinicians to work in the polyclinic based in the games village, which operated for 23 days and provided up to 75% of the healthcare needed by the 4200 athletes living there. From Coolangatta to Cairns we provided a medical team at every competition venue, including 11 training venues. But what many people don’t know is that we also provided medical care for more than 2000 team officials in the games village and to spectators at every venue. I’m always blown away by the spirit and camaraderie that we see during game times from the medical team we put together. Every clinician pitches in and works so collaboratively to ensure the athletes are at their physical peak at the right time to perform. There’s something incredibly inspiring about being around such highly-motivated people, and I don’t just mean the athletes. The energy at the Commonwealth Games is incredibly collegiate, with athletes from 71 countries both large and small — everyone has the chance to compete. It’s also really rewarding to be able to embed elite sports physios in teams that have come from countries which have limited resources for the duration of the games. The other thing I love about these games, in particular, is that they also include the para-sports program — some 300 athletes competing in seven sports within the same program. The highlight for me this year, just as in Melbourne in 2006, was watching the Australian swimming team on three of the finals nights. They were performing incredibly well, the venue was packed and it was exhilarating to see the final two events, the medley relays, both won in the last stroke.
Dr Anita Green
The first time I heard of Rwanda was on my honeymoon. My husband was reading about it in the news and he said: “I think you are going to have to go to this place.” I’d been on an army scholarship through university and was just beginning my mandated return of service. Sure enough, a few weeks after I got back my commander was sounding me out to go there. They were putting together a medical unit and, for the first time in history, it was the doctors, nurses and support staff as the main force, with the infantry and engineers as support rather than the other way round. Even though I knew it would be a terrible experience in lots of ways, I decided to put my hand up. Next thing I know, I was in the capital, Kigali. When we arrived at our little hospital, the first thing we had to do was clean. It had been bombed and there was literally blood on the walls, IV poles that had just been ripped out of people’s arms and unspeakable things that had been shoved down toilets. Eventually we found an operating theatre and in it was this Italian surgeon called Gino, who had been the only doctor in the town for a month because everybody else had fled or been killed. We walked in and said, ‘Hi, we are doctors from Australia’ and he went ‘right, come over here’ and literally said ‘see one, do one, teach one’. So he amputated somebody’s leg and then I did the next one. What got me through the next six-and-a-half months was the friendships I formed with the people around me. Although, I remember seriously considering taking up smoking as a means of relaxation! Fortunately I didn’t, but we did socialise and have fun, which helped a lot. Of course, there were no phones or internet access but there were lots of reporters around and, in fact, that is how my husband knew I was alive — because he kept seeing me on CNN. Now I run a practice a world away in Canberra and, despite the experience, I don’t really consider myself any tougher than your typical suburban mum or middle-aged female GP. My experience in Rwanda doesn’t influence how I deal with my staff, but it can impact my interactions with patients. A lot of them are veterans and I think they respect the fact that I have seen active duty. More than that though, it has taught me to be more tolerant of all the things we are capable of as human beings. Not just the terrible things we can do to each other, but all the things we can endure. And we can endure a lot, actually.
Dr Michelle Barrett
I’ve been a GP in St Ives for 45 years. It’s the area I grew up in and when I started out, it was a very new suburb, with houses being built and young couples moving in. Over the years, my patients have grown older along with me. One of them was a plastic surgeon, who was keen on helping out people with cleft palates and lips in Nepal, along with a team of anaesthetists and nurses. Gradually this built up to close to 100 operations over a couple of weeks every year, so he invited me to come with him. My job was to make sure that the patients were fit for surgery and to deal with any medical complications afterwards like chest or skin infections. But I also had to look after the team who inevitably came down with local tummy bugs. When I arrived at the hospital, the first thing I would be met with was a sea of 100 or so Nepalese faces with cleft lips and palates, which was pretty overwhelming. People would walk for days across the mountains to us. You would have thought the surgeons were operating on a Hollywood star, based on the care they took and the results they got. It was amazing. Now I’m semi-retired and I haven’t been to Nepal for a while, but I’ve got a few more adventures in me yet.
Dr Jim Pollitt
General practice is an incredible source of material for a writer: we are privileged with insights into other people’s lives and worlds that we would never encounter otherwise. I’ve been writing regularly for about 10 years now — ever since becoming vocationally registered. Once I finished my GP exams, I suddenly had to fill the void left by my studies and I filled it with writing. Early on, my fiction was often about exploring the confronting situations I had seen in my work. A lot of these stories follow my emotional journey through junior residency through to completing my training as a GP. One of my stories is based on my experiences of volunteering with an Australian-based NGO in Cambodia. Of course, I went there idealistically wanting to help people in poverty. But once I got there, I realised how arrogant it was that I, a junior doctor with virtually no understanding of tropical medicine, could have something to teach the local Khmer doctors. It was difficult to write, but it was really important to explore that epiphany about my motivation. More lately, I have started writing stories from the point of view of my patients as well. It’s a cliché but every patient is a person. They come and tell me stories about themselves — not just their specific symptoms. As a GP, it is so important to know the context of what they’re experiencing at any one time. That’s where my interest in narrative medicine comes in. It’s about listening to the patient talk about their illness in their own words rather than interrupting every minute with closed-ended questions. While I don’t write about specific patients, a lot of my characters and their situations will be recognisable to other GPs. I have a story where a young GP tries and fails to help a patient who is homeless and struggling with alcohol. It shows how we go into medicine with good intentions, wanting to help people and make them better by fixing them. But once we start practising, we realise situations can be more complex and we can’t just change entrenched patterns of behaviour in a consultation or two. It requires patience, and sometimes our interventions don’t work at all, but that is the beauty of general practice.
In February, Dr Cheng’s collection of short stories Australia Day received the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction.
Dr Melanie Cheng
I am a GP living on the Mornington Peninsula in Rosebud, Victoria. Some of my patients also know that I’m a part-time jazz pianist and composer. I have played the piano since I was nine and fell in love with jazz when I was about 14 years old. But the call to medicine came when I was about 16, probably because I was initially thinking of doing medical research. After doing my medical degree and spending a few years in hospitals, then passing the surgical primary exam, I spent four years doing research in colon cancer toward a PhD. Alongside this, I did locums in general practice, including for a practice in Rosebud, and that is where I have been full-time since 1992. My wife, Jean, has been the inspiration for many of my compositions, but a number of composers and great jazz musicians have inspired my music, from Duke Ellington to the late Clare Fischer. It’s fun trying to strike the right balance between my GP work and jazz. When our children were small, family and medicine had to take priority. Although I kept my piano chops in shape with regular practice, I didn’t play any jazz gigs for seven years and found less time to write music. When the kids were a little older, I found more time to get out and play, and gradually more time to write. I have written music since the late-1970s, but my output was leaner in those busier years. In recent years I have found a little more time, although GP work still occupies the bulk of my daylight hours. Recently I was lucky enough to head to Los Angeles to record 12 of my own jazz compositions with the Grammy-winning composer/arranger Brent Fischer and a cast of fine US jazz musicians. Heading to Hollywood to record my album Colours Of Sound was truly surreal. It’s wonderful to hear people playing my tunes and bringing the music to life. Tunes arise in all sorts of circumstances and from various inspirations. What’s beautiful about Brent’s arrangements is that he’s completely maintained the character of each one, while enhancing them greatly with his incredible skill and the nuances that he delivers. The Australian launch of Colours of Sound takes place in Melbourne on 24 March. The whole experience has been wonderful. For me, music is fun, relaxing, stimulating, exciting and always a great adventure. I don’t see music consciously as therapy because it’s there all the time, more integrated, and I don’t need to switch it on. But I am sure it is good for all of us — doctors included. Creative pursuits of all kinds give purpose and meaning, and I am sure they’re great for everyone’s health.
Dr Simon Pilbrow
Mornington Peninsula, VIC
My radio career was sparked by my patients in general practice, twice. One time, a patient was setting up the now-iconic 3AW breakfast show, Lawyers, Guns, and Money. She needed a medical expert and asked whether I would do it. I said, “Will it make you less stressed?”, and she said it would, so I did. That was in 1990 and about two years later another patient needed a host for a show about sex on radio. She said, “You could do it, you’d be great!” I said, “But I don’t know anything about sex”, and she said, “Yes you do, you do my pap smears, and you ask me about my sex life”. So that led to a two-hour-long talk-back show called Pillowtalk. It aired live each Sunday from 10pm until midnight for six years and was syndicated around the country through the Austereo Radio Network to about 30 stations. I used the name ‘Dr Feelgood’. Nothing was taboo, people could call in about anything. But what set it apart was that there was no such thing as a silly question and no snigger factor. I feel very proud we were able to open so much debate and conversation in the area, and hopefully make it easier for people to talk to their doctors about sex matters. Along with television appearances, I am still working in radio. These days I am privileged to host a two-hour program called Talking Health on Sunday nights on 3AW, with complete editorial control. It’s an in-depth look at a medical topic, such as Parkinson’s disease or gut health. I arrange experts and we take listener calls about it. Menopause always gets the biggest responses, and surprisingly often from guys asking, “I don’t know how to help my partner get through this”. In 28 years of radio, I have only ever had to use the ‘dump’ button once, and that was because the caller was about to defame somebody. I’d like to see more GPs get involved in media and not just at the top of the AMA, but other interested GPs who deserve a wider audience. I also think it’s really important to have a life outside medicine. I am lucky enough to work part-time, and have just completed a Masters of Health and Medical Law at the University of Melbourne. I graduated with my daughter, a lawyer, who completed her Masters of Law. I have a big interest in the interface between health and law, and enjoy advocating for social justice issues. I’ve needed to see a couple of specialists myself, because I have diabetes. It’s a bit of a kick in the guts when you have to be a patient, but it’s still interesting, doctors as patients. It’s a whole new interest area.
Dr Sally Cockburn
I wanted to be a doctor ever since my final year in primary school when I first learned about the human body. I was blown away by its intricacies and complexities, and wanted to learn more. I was extremely lucky to receive a good education, which enabled me to become a doctor. I believe health is a basic human right and I see myself as an unashamed ‘do-gooder’. I have always wanted to assist disadvantaged people who find themselves in difficult circumstances through no fault of their own. This renewed commitment to my medical work was spurred on by the death of our teenage son, after a long and difficult illness. My husband, a vascular surgeon, and I are now more motivated than ever to spend the remainder of our careers helping to alleviate suffering. I still derive lots of joy from my work as a GP, and I am enjoying the patient contact more than ever. For 10 years, I worked at a clinic that embodies my philosophy, at the Kirketon Road Centre in Kings Cross, Sydney. This multidisciplinary clinic, with its dedicated staff and the motto ‘Health For All’, focuses on marginalised people in inner city Sydney — the sex workers, homeless, injecting drug users, and the mentally ill. But now with our three adult daughters travelling far and wide, and my husband often away overseas volunteering with MSF (Medicins Sans Frontiers), I am able to fully commit to my work at an Aboriginal Medical Service in central Australia. I find myself encountering a whole new spectrum of diseases and disadvantage in this setting. It saddens me that my husband sees the similarities with his MSF work overseas and my work in rural Australia. While I now work in a completely different setting from inner-city Sydney, there are many similarities with my outback work. The presentation of disadvantaged patients is the same; the only difference is that here I see babies and children as well. Managing patients presents the same challenges too — homelessness makes follow-up and the continuity of care difficult. My approach is to chip away at the problems and in doing so hopefully make small gradual improvements to patients’ health. In this work, I can see how basic tenets of public health need addressing and also how the social determinants of health are far more important than our medical interventions. I now find myself treating the consequences of overcrowding combined with poor housing, sanitation and nutrition, and how this has led to a range of social problems and a society damaged by alcohol.
Dr Ruth Carter
I was with the Royal Flying Doctors Service based in Cairns. It was an amazing time. But when I was doing emergency medicine, I was pregnant and I had terrible morning sickness. I would go out onto the King Air aeroplane, jump on board, sit at the back with my little vomit cup and vomit away. I would clean up before we got to the patient. By the time you get them on the plane, they are pretty stable. I would then duck into the back of the plane and vomit for part of the trip back. Sometimes I thought I was sicker than the patient. I once reviewed one of Professor John Murtagh’s textbooks. I had turned up at one RACGP convention and there he was standing around. So I walked up to him and said: “Look I’ve reviewed your textbook and it was great but there’s no disaster management section.” After a session at the convention, he came over to me with a twinkle in his eye and said: “Penny I have a job for you. I want you to write two pages on disaster medicine for the next textbook.” Apparently he had put disaster management in the first textbook, but felt it was not useful so he took it out. So we managed to put those two pages in again.
Dr Penny Burns
My sister is a cardiologist and also played for the ACT Meteors cricket team. She was asked to work with the West Indian and Sri Lankan cricket teams during their tour of Australia. She had other commitments, so she passed the job onto me. I spent three or four days with them at a time in case of medical incidents. I spent some time with the physios and got to watch them train. The medicine itself is straightforward, just musculoskeletal medicine. Really, I just got to watch some great cricket. They were two contrasting teams. With Sri Lanka, the diligence and training was incredible. They’d train like they were playing. They’d practise batting for 40 minutes at a time and rebuke themselves if they missed a shot. Kumar Sangakkara was an academic — always reading a novel. Mahela Jayawardene was a bit of a joker. Tillakaratne Dilshan was a bit of a prankster. Once, he told training staff the bus was at 4.30pm when it wasn’t due for another hour. Everybody got all packed up and headed over, then came back to find him relaxing in the changing rooms. The West Indians were just what you’d expect: a bunch of boisterous boys. It was hard to round them up. You’d be out for dinner, look around, and they’d be away chatting to the locals. Players like Chris Gayle and Andre Russell — how hard they hit the ball. It was frightening, even standing behind the nets. I remember when the team was on its way to the Prime Minister’s XI match. We were on the bus to The Lodge and Darren Sammy, the captain, was talking to me to figure out what he would say. It was there that Julia Gillard’s partner, Tim Mathieson, made a joke — a gaffe about prostate cancer and digital rectal examinations. It was a bit awkward for a lot of people, but the West Indians found it amusing. I’ve had opportunities to do cricket things since then, but I’ve had to turn them down. Family commitments, you know.
Dr Robert Hungerford
While working in prisons and marginalised communities, I try to focus on what practical things I can do to improve people’s lives. I have always had a strong belief that healthcare should be accessible to all and quality primary care is a great way of overcoming social inequality. When I started out, I really wanted to work in Aboriginal health but I worried that, not being Aboriginal, I wouldn’t have a lot to offer. So I began my training in normal practice, until one day I read an article in Australian Doctor about a GP who was working in Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service. I was so inspired that I rang up to ask if there were vacancies. They directed me to Western Sydney, where I ended up working in the Aboriginal Medical Service for many years. I also became interested at that early stage in working with people who had been involved in the criminal justice system. Four years later, I walked into a prison for the first time. People worry about that, but security there isn’t an issue. Instead, what I really struggled with initially was recognising the sad realities that many women in prison face. But prison healthcare is incredibly satisfying. The work is challenging and you can make a difference. You really do feel valued by the people you treat in prisons. They want the healthcare you are offering and being there through the long haul for them is something I find very satisfying.
Dr Penny Abbott
I started taking photos when I was 13 years old. My father gave me a black-and-white camera to play around with. I’ve never been to school to learn photography, but I learned a lot about photography from library books when I was studying medicine in China. I’ve taken lots of photos in the Naracoorte area in SA, where I’m based. Last year, I had a patient with a history of four different types of cancers. She felt very down because she had been fighting these cancers for 20 years and couldn’t get out often. I said I would print one of my photographs, and she could put it at home — it made her so happy. She carried the photo everywhere. At the end of her life, she kept the photo next to her bedside table until she passed away. The photo was of a tiny hill that became golden in colour in the late summertime, and there was a whole group of cows on the hill. It’s a reflection of the local beautiful scenery in Naracoorte. People here are very proud of their town and proud of the environment they’ve got. I started putting some prints of my photos in my consultation room. I must have given out hundreds of photos to my patients. My older patients are really happy about it, but the kids really like it too. Many kids are scared of needles, but after they come in and I give them a photo, I make them really happy and they’re not so scared of needles anymore.
Dr Yao Zhang
Pat: We met in the first week of first-year medicine at the University of Sydney, but it could have been earlier. It was 1949, and Bill was walking down the street near our residential colleges with a mutual friend who introduced us. I immediately said, “Bill Ryan, you’re the boy who didn’t come to my party!” We started seeing each other at lectures, where Bill used to save a seat for me, and it wasn’t long before we were going out. By the end of the first year, we made up our minds that we would stay together, but I didn’t want to get married until I finished my residency. If that had happened, I knew I’d have got pregnant in no time and would never become a doctor. So we courted for eight years before it finally happened. A month later, we arrived in Nowra where Bill’s father was practising, but he was already ‘Dr Ryan’. So Bill became ‘Dr Bill’ and I became ‘Dr Pat’. That is what people still call us. Working and living together in a small town has been easy for us because we are the best of friends apart from anything else — although we are both very strong-willed. We don’t spend our entire time talking medicine, but we have supported each other when things have been tough at work. We’ve also worked in forensic medicine and Bill was made president of the World Police Medical Officers association. But our greatest achievement is our family. For our 60th wedding anniversary last month, we had four kids and all but one of our 18 grandkids around for a party. The only one missing was an Olympic medallist, who was competing in a sailing tournament overseas.
Dr Bill Ryan (left) And Dr Pat Ryan
My story in medicine is really a journey of working in the NT for 20 years, leaving to be close to family, but feeling the pull to come back. Now I have set up Darwin’s first integrative medical practice and the territory’s only transgender clinic. I first came up when I took a year off from my medical training in Melbourne to drive around Australia in a van. I had never really understood Aboriginal health or culture, but that year, I just drove out to remote communities and introduced myself to their clinics as a medical student. Sitting with the doctors gave me an introduction to Indigenous health I could never have received at university. It was a very positive experience, just like my more recent work with LGBTI kids who have had their lives changed by having access to help close by. For whatever reason, there is an instinct in me to do the work where it is most needed. And I think I have done that in three ways so far: by working in Indigenous health; helping people with more complex, long-term diseases; and bringing transgender expertise to Darwin. So I don’t mind going it alone. It is a blessing in life to be able to do work that is really true to your heart.
Dr Danielle Stewart
I started practising in 1974, and I first went onto the radio in 1980, on a multicultural station in Sydney. Then in 2000, we started the health segment on community TV. I realised there are a lot of questions my patients would like to ask that they won’t bring up in a consult. Sometimes it is because they are too shy or they worry about time. So in the program, I took the role of the patient, and I would ask the specialists about different diseases and how they would treat them. I’m from Mumbai, and the program was in our local Marathi language, but when the specialists came on, we obviously had to do those segments in English. Going on the radio was a bit challenging in the beginning. Once you get started, it’s okay, but when you first sit down to answer the questions, your heart rate goes up and you start sweating, irrespective of how many years you have done it. Even now, it still happens. Once the mic is in front of you, you realise there are hundreds of people listening and worry that everything you say has to be correct. I’ve even broadcast walking the City2Surf running course to give the audience information about how important it is to walk and keep yourself fit.
Dr Purushottam Sawrikar
I grew up in Geelong, which is very close to Torquay, the mecca of surfing. I love being in the ocean, but my passion at the time was getting into university, studying medicine and becoming a doctor. I missed my opportunity living on the coast to become a surfie chick and become really good at surfing. Learning to surf requires a bit of bravado, a bit of skill and a huge amount of time to practise. I came back to surfing when we moved to Mallacoota. I’m not sure how the town’s people really took that; they weren’t expecting their local doctor to come out surfing. It’s pretty embarrassing learning how to surf with a crowd of local surfers looking at us falling off our surfboards. In summer, I’ll get up at a quarter to six and surf for two hours before work. When you’re out in the ocean you have to be present. You can’t take your concentration off the waves because you’ll just get pummelled. You’re just being there and having to let everything else go. For me, it’s a fast track to relaxation and rejuvenation, which helps me keep going through the full-on stuff that happens in a small, remote general practice.
Dr Sara Renwick-Lau
Because Australian medical exams are expensive, I had to do extra ambulance shifts in India to make money to sit the exams. I worked double what I would usually. I would do 24-hour shifts in ICU and during my days off, I would do one- or two-hour ambulance shifts to get money. I was working 60-70 hours a week. There was one interesting incident — actually, I shouldn’t say interesting, because it was pretty scary. We were taking a patient from one city to another. While coming back, we had to drive for seven or eight hours. The driver of the ambulance wasn’t really alert, but I didn’t realise because I was sleeping behind him in the ambulance. Suddenly I heard a bang and then the ventilator fell on top of me. I had a big split on my right knee, a big wound. Then I realised people outside had more injuries than me. I stepped outside and saw the ambulance had crashed. There was another car that had hit a tree. I think the ambulance was hit from the side. The driver had died and one of the passengers was severely injured. I tried to resuscitate him, but unfortunately, we couldn’t save him. Another ambulance arrived and we took the other passengers to hospital. I was taken to the hospital as well. I had a few sutures in my knee and you can still see the scar. I think having experiences like that help in general practice. One of the good things about being a GP now is that I get more time off.
Dr Devesh Dhulekar
Becoming a GP wasn’t accidental, but it wasn’t planned from the beginning either. I started working in a local pathology lab. Then I went overseas, doing the same thing in West Africa. When I returned, I continued to work in laboratory science while doing a Master’s degree in nutrition. After completing that, I landed a health promotion job, but I found that difficult because it was mostly an administrative job, whereas I’m more of a doer. So I became a medical officer in the Royal Australian Navy, serving on ships, doing some border patrol and exercises in South-East Asia. I was taking care of the troops, but I also participated in a lot of their daily activities. I was more ancillary than specifically medical. In total, I spent two-and-a-half years on ships and six years in the navy, including training. The majority of the things I’d see were mundane, but occasionally you’d have a crisis. It was either chaos or totally quiet. I think you make of general practice what you want. If you want to treat coughs and colds all day, you can restrict yourself to that and patients gravitate towards you with that. But I don’t accept the daily grind that people sometimes associate with general practice. It doesn’t have to be like that at all.
Dr Ashraf Saleh
I’m setting up a charity, Remedi, with a couple of friends. It all started when I went on elective to India as a fifth-year medical student. I was born in India, and came to Australia when I was nine, so I thought I knew what to expect, but what I found was profoundly shocking. It wasn’t as if I went to a remote village. I was working with a general physician at a state primary care hospital in Ludhiana, a big industrial city in Punjab. He saw 120 patients in his clinic every day. The very first day I saw a woman, incredibly sick with post-partum sepsis. The stench was nauseating. I don’t know whether she hadn’t showered after her delivery or whether it was the smell of the infection itself. I felt so faint, I had to go and lie down. People were presenting at the hospital with chronic liver disease, end-stage metastatic cancer and disseminated tuberculosis. There was just nowhere to put them. They were discharged with a very basic medical plan. There were no medications supplied at the hospital. People had to buy them and pay for their own investigations. Usually they just didn’t have the money for any treatment. I had done some fundraising before I came. I had a feeling it would be needed. The $1000 I brought with me was gone in a couple of days as I used it on a case-by-case basis, paying for people’s medicines and tests. Now we are setting up Remedi to raise money to support the dialysis unit at the hospital. They have two machines serving 600 patients. Diabetes is a huge problem in India and many patients are in end-stage renal failure. We want to pay for people to have fistulas — something they can’t afford.
Dr Ati Jhajj
We loved Uganda. The people were beautiful and it was spring all year round. It was 5000 feet above sea level on the equator, so you can imagine the weather. It was beautiful. We spent 10 years there. My husband was the only surgeon in the hospital, doing everything for one million people. He couldn’t refuse surgery to anyone who needed it. But former Ugandan President Idi Amin did not want his political rival’s people treated, only his people. Amin was cruel and absolutely revolting, even to look at. I believe he had syphilis, that’s why his brain got wonky. My husband used to hide the names of Amin’s enemies he treated. But the other doctors said to him ‘You have to get out of this country’. I said to my husband, ‘I’ve got a good general practice and we don’t know whether we’ll like Australia. You go first, and I’ll join you later’. But when the situation became bad, he didn’t feel safe leaving me behind. We had to leave for the airport at one o’clock, but I was working right up to the end. He had to drag me away. I started crying in the car, and then the children started to cry because their mum was crying. We left a lot of money behind but that doesn’t matter. Two weeks later, there was the general exodus. All the Asians had to leave. Friends we left behind asked, ‘Did you know something beforehand?’. But we didn’t. It was just luck. From 1974 up until today, I’ve been practising at the same practice in Wyoming, NSW. I still have a few patients who first came to see me the day we opened the practice.
Dr Kanta Ahluwalia
I was born in Italy in 1943, and as a baby I became very dehydrated. We got kicked out of our village with the German occupation and my mother lost her milk. I’m told I was in a coma for the first 3-4 months of my life and it sounds like I am lucky to be alive. But I think this was the start of my staghorn calculus, which appeared later. We moved to Australia when I was 16 and when we arrived, I couldn’t speak a word of English. So I was working in my uncle’s restaurant in the day and learning English at a technical college at night. I also did my HSC at tech, and I remember when I started studying engineering at Sydney University, how happy I was to be around people of my age. I met a really nice group of friends, and many of them were medical students, who encouraged me to switch from engineering to medicine. In my medical student days, after a run, I noticed I had blood in my urine. I got it checked out and it turned out to be staghorn calculus. I lost that kidney, and the doctor told me, “You will have a normal life but you have to drink two litres of water a day.” With just one kidney, I kept running to keep fit, and along with others at a running club I’d joined, I trained anywhere from 40km-100km a week. Running was the only sport I had time for. I was a solo GP for 30 years between 1972 and 2002 in Revesby, NSW, where I was delivering babies, doing a bit of surgery and doing after hours as well. My wife and I also have five children, so there was no time for anything. I then joined a group practice in Bankstown, and that gave me a bit more time as there were five of us. When my remaining kidney started to malfunction and then fail, I had to stop work when I was 68. Six months after I started dialysis, my sister came to visit me from the US, where she lived. I thought she was just there to offer encouragement to me, but she said, “No, I’ve come to give you one of my kidneys.” I’ve just competed in three events at the 2016 Australian Transplant Games in Penrith in Western Sydney and I managed to win a gold medal in the 30km bike road race, a silver medal for the 3km run/walk and another silver medal in mixed doubles tennis. I’m looking forward to the next World Transplant Games, which will be held in Spain in 2017. I am so grateful to my sister for donating her kidney, but she has said, “Don’t even thank me, don’t put me on a pedestal, I don’t want anything for it.” I am very lucky to have a sister like that. What can you do, how do you thank someone who has given you an extension of your life?
Dr Bruce Orsatti
I initially did a degree in computer engineering. On finishing that, I worked as an engineer. But while I was doing my computer engineering degree, I realised I wanted something more fulfilling in my life beyond looking at a screen all day long. I wanted to do something with a human focus. That’s what prompted a few different electives in my degree — to see what I enjoyed. I found myself quite enjoying medical science electives, so I switched over to medicine. It’s ironic, because I still spend a large part of my day looking at a computer screen. A lot more people are now going into general practice who have had a fair bit of experience with computers growing up. However, some doctors of the ‘more experienced’ generation, tend to be apprehensive about their computer. When it doesn’t work, they’re very worried about what’s happening and how to fix it. I do still like to keep abreast of technological developments. The other day, I decided to try my hand at coding an Android application. I got it all ready, went to start coding, and then thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve forgotten it all’.
Dr TJ Kanhere
I originally came from Serbia, landed up in Melbourne, but because of the moratorium on foreign doctors, I had to practise somewhere rural. Having always lived in large cities, I was horrified. Albury sounded a bit less rural than most of the other options, so that’s how I ended up here. Then I decided I wanted my own practice. This is the first year I’ve had it, and I’m really happy. I’m also a keen translator. I’ve worked as a translator and an interpreter. My major languages, in addition to Serbian and English, are French and Italian. But I also know Greek, Spanish and Latin. I sing in many different languages as well. I trained as a pianist but have worked professionally as a singer, although now I have limited time for singing. And in Albury there are limited opportunities, because most of my work in music is classical. It’s Australian pop and rock that’s played in the bars here. I’m first and foremost a classical musician, but also do some Latin American, Argentinian tango, Cuban salsa, flamenco, and a lot of gypsy music. It’s hard to slot any of that in here.
Dr Ivana Milanovic
I’m coming to the end of my medical days and I thought I would go back to Bourke in NSW, where I had worked for three and a half years in the early 1970s, as a fitting place to do a locum and then retire from clinical medicine. I’ve always liked the place. There is something magical about Bourke and its history and people. I did my locum and I really enjoyed it. But … one weekend, I went to the cemetery to pay homage to some of the people I had worked with in the 1970s, particularly Aboriginal leaders Bill Reid and Wally Byers, as well as Fred Hollows. Wally’s grave was completely unmarked, and Bill and his wife’s graves were marked with a picket with a tag on them. Compared with the size of Fred’s grave, I found this to be completely offensive. They had worked with Fred and me; they were my friends. So I thought, I’ve got to do something about this. I sought out an Aboriginal man, an artist called Bobby Mackay, who’s originally from Bourke. He said it would be an enormous honour to make headstones for them, because he knew them both. Once the headstones are up, probably towards the end of the year, I will try and do another locum in Bourke and that will be my clinical swan song. I’ll retire when my registration runs out next September. I’ve got a lot of writing still to do, and I think my wife, Jackie (pictured), deserves a bit more of my time.
Dr Max Kamien
When I finally passed my RACGP fellowship exams, it was sort of like winning gold at the Olympics. Not that I’m an athlete, but after all I had been through, it was a recognition of the years of hard work, training and time away from family. It felt like I finally belonged. I thought, “Right, now I am a part of this thing.” I came from Malaysia in 2006, with my partner and baby. We didn’t have any intention of staying, but, after a couple of months, we liked Australia a lot and decided to stay on. For the first four years, I worked in Bundaberg Hospital in Queensland, and later in Brisbane. I then left public hospitals to do locum work in Alice Springs, Broken Hill and a few rural locations around Queensland. By mid-2011, I’d applied to be on the college’s general practice program, and was lucky enough to be accepted. Being an IMG, I was on the rural pathway. My first job was in Dalby, and every week I would drive home to Brisbane. When I finally got back to Brisbane in 2014, I got my fellowship and my moratorium was coming to an end. It is a tough road for IMGs. I have seen many colleagues give up along the way and go back to their country, or change careers. They faced so many hurdles and were unable to get through all of them. If you want to be a GP, you need to seek guidance from the college and have the determination to get where you want to be. But it’s worth it in the end.
Dr Kah Ho
I was born in Egypt into a middle class family, the youngest of five and the only girl. My father was a high school English teacher and my mother a homemaker. We were a close family; close to aunties, uncles, grandparents and cousins. Ever since primary school, I had the ambition to become a doctor. They used to call me ‘Dr Faten’ in the family and at school. At school, we had a ‘health check day’ once a week. One student from each class would dress up like a nurse and be the teacher’s assistant as they checked the children. We ensured their hair was clean and neat, their fingernails trimmed, and that they had two clean hankies — one for the nose and the other for their hands. I used to look forward to that day and was so proud when I was chosen. At high school, I excelled in maths and physics. When I finished school, my father wanted me to be an engineer, like two of my brothers, but I was determined to be a doctor and he was unable to sway me from my dream. I managed the mental health program in the Canterbury Division of General Practice for years. The key issues with mental health are the time factor and being interested, because not everybody can listen. We all have patients who never talk about their feelings. As a doctor, you have to make your patient feel comfortable and then they may start to open up. I believe you need a minimum of 50 minutes to do a good job. In Lakemba, where I used to work before, there were many people from different Middle Eastern backgrounds, so being a female Egyptian doctor was an advantage. It’s very important to understand your patients’ culture and how they live their lives. Many people feel quite isolated when they move to a different country. My Christian faith is very important to me. I like sewing, crochet, knitting and handicrafts. I made my own wedding gown. I wish I had the spare time to do more.
Dr Faten Selim
I grew up on a farm near Gnowangerup, WA, and horses have always been a big part of my life. Now I’m a country GP in York. Sometimes I ride to work and leave my horse in the paddock next to the surgery. I’m trying to reduce the hours I work as a GP so I can spend more time practising EAP (equine-assisted psychotherapy) with returned servicemen suffering from PTSD, depression and anxiety. My interest in EAP developed when I was dealing with a series of traumatic life events and noticed how much better I felt after going for a ride. This prompted me to do some research, and I found strong evidence that horses can enhance human potential and enable emotional healing. This was the start of a new life pathway for me. Buck Brannaman, the inspiration for the novel The Horse Whisperer, has become a good friend and mentor. He says: ‘The horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you’ll like what you see; sometimes you won’t.’ My goal is to set up an EAP centre on a property near York. I have five horses and two camels. Camels are also incredibly intelligent, affectionate and highly intuitive. I couldn’t work the hours I do without an occasional ride at lunchtime or after work. I often ride through town and people say — ‘Oh yeah, there’s Dr Susie again’.
Dr Susan Stevenson
I’ve worked on ships in the Russian Arctic and I’ve also worked in Antarctica — I’m ‘bipolar’, as somebody once said to me. Antarctica is an amazing place. There are a lot of scientists down there doing different things and they often need help counting penguins or tagging seals. I’m a keen gardener, so when I’ve been down there, I’ve looked after the hydroponics. It’s a different life, and being isolated with a small number of people has its own challenges. You have to live with your patients and look at them across the dinner table three times a day. There are small things too. For example, I ordered something online to come in on the next ship. The bank cancelled my credit card because they didn’t recognise the place I was buying it from. I rang them and they said, ‘It’s alright, we’ll send one in the next post’. But that was in eight months’ time. I also had some major things happen on ships. I was on an icebreaker in a remote part of the Russian Arctic and we had a helicopter crash. Seven people injured with varying degrees of injury. There was me, as the passenger doctor, and a Russian doctor who normally looked after the crew. He didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Russian, but we still managed to sort it out between the two of us.
Dr Eve Merfield
I’m a doctor and a rap musician. I got drawn to hip-hop music growing up, when artists like Public Enemy and 2Pac would use the genre as a tool for political activism. At the same time, I wanted to pursue my interest in science and be at the coalface of healthcare. I didn’t know where a career in hip-hop would fit among the many years of study ahead of me, and how it would be received by my colleagues, so I initially kept my medical and musical endeavours separate. Since then, I have worked as a resident in tertiary and rural hospitals, as a registrar in Aboriginal and antenatal health services, and as a fellow in a university and youth mental health clinics. I’ve witnessed a wide spectrum of human experience, and how social issues can affect health outcomes. I released my debut album Made of Jade in 2013, about my experience as a Vietnamese Australian, and I’m working on my second album Agenda, which covers topics I’ve come across as a clinician, including young carers, organ donation, asylum-seekers and mental health. I am a member of the Queensland Leadership Group for the Institute of Creative Health, and have performed shows in Brisbane, Sydney and New York. I no longer have to hide my double life, and I’m proud to be a part of a global, evolving tradition of political hip-hop activism.
Dr Tu Pham
Dad started the practice in 1977. I joined as of this year. A spot opened up within the practice and it had always been a goal of mine to work here. Growing up with Dad running a practice, I got a glimpse into what running a general practice was like and what the actual aspects of general practice were like. That was a big inspiration for me actually starting medicine and then choosing the path of general practice. It seemed like a logical step to then join Dad. We do talk shop during the day. We bounce ideas off each other about difficult cases. I like to think I learn from him and, hopefully, I can give him some things he might not already know. He’s a handy resource and a good mentor as well.
Dr Tim O’Brien (right)
and Dr Christopher O’Brien
I worked in India. And then did an elective in Papua New Guinea. The next place I went to was in New Guinea again, in Bougainville. Then I worked several places in Indonesia, mostly east Indonesia. I did a couple of locums for International SOS in Beijing. Then was country medical director for them in Nigeria. The variety and scope of the medicine you see is fantastic. Working in Bougainville, when I was there, that would’ve been like being a country GP in Australia 70 years ago. You would just do everything — caesarean sections, minor operations. We had a proper Australian-trained expatriate surgeon, but he was far too busy at the public hospital to be bothered with appendectomies or any of that stuff. That was left to us to deal with. I’ve still got itchy feet. My problem is I had a serious motorcycle accident three years ago. I have difficulty walking now. While my feet itch, I have trouble getting them to move around the place.
Dr Patrick O’Neill
My grandfather won three Brownlows and three Sandovers, that’s a matter of history. He’s in the AFL Hall of Fame, and has an MCG sporting statue. My father, again, is in the AFL Hall of Fame. None of that is going to define me because they’re not my achievements. Self-esteem can only be achieved by effort, sometimes unpleasant effort. It’s work. It’s hard. Whatever anybody does, looking after a winery, hiking in the middle of nowhere, self-esteem is the essence of why they do it. When I go out on my motorbike, and I’ve ridden in the rain for eight hours solid to get to a place to camp, even though nobody on the planet gives a crap, nobody’s going to know, and I don’t have to tell them … I do it because it’s hard and I’ve achieved something.
Dr Hadyn Bunton III
I have been practising as a GP in Oakleigh, Melbourne, since 1988, after fleeing the Sri Lankan riots five years earlier. I’m one of the lucky ones, who was granted official migration acceptance as I was affected genuinely by the riots. I had been practising as a doctor since graduation in 1971, when the riots against the Tamils started. We were living in the heart of Colombo, when a mob rushed into our house with a knife still dripping with blood at around 10.30am, and pointed it at my husband’s chest. At the time, my two kids were five and six, and it was just us, our parents and some relatives. It was our good fortune that one man in the mob — the one next to the one with the knife who was threatening my husband — asked me what a Sinhalese woman was doing next to a Tamil man, assuming that I was Sinhalese. Luckily, I spoke Sinhalese fluently, although it is not my mother tongue. So I pretended to be Sinhalese and told them I was married to the Tamil man. This made them leave us without killing anyone, but they burnt down our house and we had to take shelter with our neighbours. This event is imprinted deep in my heart, and made me realise that nothing is permanent, except the education that you have and the good that you do in the world. The incident allowed my family and me to migrate to Australia in 1984, on special humanitarian grounds. We came to Melbourne with just $500, as that was all we had. We started our new life with our two kids and nothing else. My husband, who is a civil engineer, got a job after a year. I then studied for and passed the Australian Medical Council exam in 1988. This country is my home and we are so grateful that we have been accepted here, that I feel I should give back to it as long as I live. After the 2004 tsunami, I went back to Sri Lanka to help out in Batticaloa. Since then, I have been doing the same for other countries needing help. I also help out at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne. My passions include helping the poor, gardening, travelling and being a GP. So I am still working just for the love of it. Australia is a ‘sunshine country’ and we are extremely proud to be its citizens.
Dr Devi Yogaranandan
I know at least four or five of us in Bunbury who are pilots. I took it up two years ago, just to try to do something different. I live in this fantastic part of the world and I thought ‘is it too late to learn things?’ There’s an airport right here, seven minutes from my home. I can drive out there, get in an aeroplane, and fly. I just love the view up there. You get up there and nobody can ring you. You just take in the scenery. You can look for dolphins, look for whales. It’s a new skill, and it’s cheaper than having a caravan or a four-wheel drive. When you look for a plane, they’re advertised all over the country. You’ve got to get it delivered somehow. You either pay somebody else to do it, or, if you’re lucky, a flying instructor or member of your flying club comes with you, knowing what they’re doing, and you bring it back yourself. It’s a great adventure.
Dr Michael Comparti,
I am from the first generation of Chairman Mao’s Red China. I was smuggled out of China when I was 12, at the greatest height of the Chinese famine when it is estimated 15 million people died from starvation over four years, between 1958 and 1962. In the summer of 1962, I was smuggled under fishing junk in a secret tunnel. There were about half a dozen of us and we were smuggled into Hong Kong. That’s how I got out, and from there I eventually came to Australia. Now I write. That’s my pastime. Every morning, I write for a couple of hours before I get to work. I won a few fellowships to Varuna, The Writer’s House in the Blue Mountains, where writers from all over Australia can spend a week or two. It’s a totally quiet place where you just mind your own business, and write. I didn’t write at all until the year 2000. I was quite depressed in 2000 and I thought about stopping practising altogether. But one thing led to another, and I started writing. I think that helped me. I think that saved me.
Dr Andrew Kwong
I was born in England and migrated to Australia as a 10-pound Pom, although I was then three and my parents were the 10-pound Poms. As a GP, I started doing a bit of aged care. I found I liked it, and the patients liked me, and it grew from there — to the point where I was looking after two-thirds of the patients at two nursing homes. At that stage, I left the practice I was with and moved into one of those nursing homes and established a solo practice. Concentrating on one age group is satisfying for me. Learning their histories, their stories from before they were incapacitated, is actually quite fascinating. These are real people, and I think that’s often forgotten. Discovering that sort of stuff is fascinating, and it motivates you a bit more to help them. I am afflicted with fairly severe arthritis. I’ve had two knee replacements. I’m physically unable to work full-time, but as long as I can do this, then I do it. It’s an area of great need. I am appreciated, and respected, and needed. And I can still do it. I need to keep moving. When you’ve got arthritis, you need to keep moving.
Dr Maureen McCluskey
In the late 1990s, with my three children at primary school, I formed a bush band with my daughters — one daughter in particular — and other kids at the East Launceston Primary School. Then the children grew up and went to high school. They don’t have much to do with parents after that, as we all know. So I had this acoustic guitar and a number of bush songs that I’d started singing. And I thought, what am I going to do with this? You can’t just practise bush songs in a back room. You have to have a reason. So I thought, maybe busking? I started standing on a street corner in central Launceston, raising money. It gave me a reason to practise, it gave me a reason to learn songs and it gave me a reason to get better. Because if you’re going to force yourself onto people on a street corner somewhere, I think you have a responsibility to know your songs, to be able to play your instruments well and to sing in tune. I started that back in the early 2000s, and I’ve been doing it ever since. Two years ago, my eldest daughter said, ‘Dad, I’m going to Africa, but my travel companion has had to opt out. Why don’t you come with me?’ It turned out that when I signed up, that part of ‘going to Africa’ included climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Northern Tanzania. And I thought, okay, maybe I can do something with this. So I turned that part of the Africa trip into an attempt to do the world’s highest busk. I did that and recorded it all. The song I sang at the top was Waltzing Matilda — with 70% oxygen, after climbing 5900 metres over a couple of days. Is that the last chapter? Well, a few months ago, my daughter and I agreed to go to Mount Everest Base Camp. Everest Base Camp is just 100 metres or so lower than Mount Kilimanjaro. I’m pondering whether to take my guitar and do what would be the world’s second-highest busk.
Dr Andrew Jackson
There was a moment when I was standing naked in a waterfall, picking off leeches, with the photographer barking directions at me, that I started having doubts. It was taking an interminably long time, and the damp cold seemed to be seeping out of the ancient forest floor and into my bones. But it was for a good cause, I reminded myself, as Kirsty adjusted her lens for the umpteenth time. I hadn’t quite known what I was getting into when I saw the poster at the local servo advertising for nude models for an environmental cause. Kirsty is well-known here in Tassie as an artist and activist, and she wanted to raise awareness about old growth logging in the Tarkine. When I told my best friend Helen, she was like “You’ll never do that, you’re such a prim prude”. Which cemented my resolve. It’s good to get out of your comfort zone. And the photos are de-identified, discreet. We made a few trips to different places … Mount Wellington, the Styx Valley. Kirsty has snake phobia so we had to wait until the middle of winter. One time, we went to a logging coupe. We had to sneak in, hide the car. You could hear the chainsaws, logs hitting the ground like thunder. The ground shook. We were going to a special place Kirsty knew about, but there was no path — we followed these strands of pink builders tape tied to trees by activists who had gone before. We got lost a few times. The trees were massive, they call them ‘cathedral trees’ ’cause you can walk inside them. The absolute beauty of the place … it’s almost untouched, these beautiful floors of moss, bright green fungi. There is a feeling these forests are so special, and they were being destroyed right in front of us. Then we arrived, and we just took our clothes off. Kirsty is a real perfectionist — each shot took forever. But it was worth it. The photos turned out beautifully and got published in a book. As it turned out, my picture is on the cover. I remember walking past the window of one of the big bookshops in town and there it was. I was a bit lost for words.
Dr Clare Ballingall
I would have been eight when I decided I wanted to be a doctor. No one in my family had finished high school, let alone university, so I can’t say it came from that. Health always held a fascination for me. Whenever someone said that they were unwell, I wanted to know why they were unwell, how they got unwell and how to make them feel better. Even when I had to leave home and school at 16, I didn’t lose that dream. I worked wherever I could to support myself, doing mainly hospitality work, but also ceramic tiling, industrial cleaning, tobacco picking and lychee packing. When I went back to high school I was 23, and a single mum with a toddler and a six-month-old baby to look after. During my lunch breaks, I would use the cleaner’s room for expressing breastmilk and I’d do my assignments in my spare time, so that at the end of the school day I could spend time being a mum. Routine and discipline kept me going. I got accepted into a few medical programs and decided on Monash University’s and, in 2005, my medical education began. One of my pre-intern rotations was to the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine in 2009. I was there at the time of the Black Saturday bushfires and was involved in victim identification. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, later on post-traumatic stress disorder affected me greatly, leading to mental health issues. Now, I’m a GP in a country practice, and while I still see a psychiatrist regularly, I am in a better place. I am raising my two teenaged boys and know that I have to balance my work with time for myself and my passions. I am sharing my story because I’m passionate about mental health, and because my experiences might help someone else see there is no barrier to following your dreams.
Dr Tamara Ford
My name is Kali, which means ‘boomerang’ in Pitjantjatjara. Kali is also the name of the Hindu goddess of death and destruction, but I don’t think my dad, who’s a pastor, knew that at the time. People think all doctors follow this straight path from high school to med school. But it wasn’t like that for me. When I was 16, I left school after I became pregnant. People think if you’re pregnant at 16, you are going to go on the dole and that’s it — it’s the end of your life. I moved home to my parents’ place in Mildura, and when I got there, I went to a GP to get confirmation. When the test came back positive, he told me I had brought shame to my father. Leaving that consulting room, for the first time I did feel ashamed. At 17, I married my partner — I had to go before a magistrate to do it because I was underage. I went back and did my VCE at TAFE. By the time our second child was at kinder, I was surrounded by young mums. But that GP’s words were still ringing in my ears. I thought, “I want to do something in the world that supports women’s and babies’ health. I enrolled in a foundation science course at uni. When I was there, I met four other Aboriginal medical students, and that was a powerful thing. They gave me the courage to pursue medicine. I had never been treated by an Aboriginal doctor. I had my third and fourth babies while I was studying. It made sense to become a GP, there is nothing I would rather do. I work in an Aboriginal Medical Service in Adelaide, and I see women, men and children. I see elders. I did work in mainstream practice, but the medicine wasn’t enough for me, I needed that connection to Aboriginal people.
Dr Kali Hayward
We had moved to the UK from Cape Town in South Africa, and I was struggling a bit. I had a baby and a three-year-old, was working as a doctor and was also studying for my final fellowship exams to become a GP. I had always fancied doing pottery, and someone recommended I do something outside of work as a stress reliever. It helped hugely. I did those classes for a couple of years and, while I wouldn’t say it saved my life, it certainly helped the situation. It was just nice to be able to switch off and forget who you are for three hours and have absolutely no responsibility. When we came to Perth, I brought my kiln with me and started doing these ceramic flowers. They were a bit of an experiment, but then I realised that people liked them when I sold them at markets, and it has sort of gone on from there. I’ve now got a studio and on my two days off as a GP, I head out to my workshop and make ceramic flowers. As a GP, someone always needs an opinion or has a problem that needs solving. In my workshop, it’s just my own thoughts and no one requires anything of me. I’m actually creating something too. It gives you a bit of a thrill to make things, I suppose. You don’t always get that in your day job. It’s the complete opposite of what I have done for the past 20 years as a doctor.
Dr Bronwen Holding
When I first came up here to Alice Springs from Sydney, I was blown away by the absolute beauty of the place. And I thought there are people who live on the east coast who will never see this. It is absolutely extraordinary. Now, after working with Aboriginal people across the territory and in NSW and WA for 12 years, while the landscape is still majestic, it is far surpassed by the experience of the cultural interface between white and Aboriginal people. The real gift and privilege has been to be jolted out of the comfort of urban white practice, to be challenged by different beliefs and attitudes and to be amazed at the resilience, humour and strong sense of identity and culture of Aboriginal people. The work is challenging, difficult and at times immensely frustrating, and I have a lot to learn. But the Aboriginal people I meet are generous and willing teachers.
Dr Christine Hampshire
Alice Springs, NT
This is a picture of my father. I painted it when I was 43 — the same age he was when he escaped Vietnam in 1980 with my brother and me. Dad spent three years in a concentration camp after the Vietnam War. He was persecuted even after his release because he had been a captain with the South Vietnamese Army — the losing side. When we fled Vietnam, Mum stayed behind. Dad said in the worst-case scenario, she would have three less mouths to feed. It sounds shocking, but these are the kinds of decisions that people are forced to make. Now that I have two children of my own, I am much more aware of how hard it must have been for my parents to make that choice to divide the family. They looked into uncertainty and said, ‘That’s what we have to do; we have to face it.’ We set out on a wooden boat. It was about four metres wide and 12 metres long, and there were about 160 people on board. After five days at sea, we were rescued by a Norwegian oil tanker, which knew a storm was coming that would have obliterated the boat. After we got to Australia, we settled in Melbourne and Dad built a life for us. Mum then came out to join us. I see them every week, and the older I get, the more I understand and am thankful for what they did. Now I reflect on how we treat refugees, and our fear of them, and it strikes me that anxiety is one of the most insidious and pervasive symptoms of our age. And a lot of these fears are based on nothing concrete.
Dr Minh Phan
I am a major in the Australian Army. In 2014, I served as regimental medical officer for 5 RAR (5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment) for an exercise in Hawaii, providing primary and emergency care, and linking troops with tertiary care as required. I was also encouraged to work side-by-side with the soldiers and participate in the training activities. One afternoon, I was sitting at the edge of a field watching soldiers fast-roping out of a US Marine Corps Sikorsky Super Stallion helicopter. Fast-roping is a technique for sliding down a thick rope and is used to rapidly deploy troops in places where a helicopter cannot touch down, such as difficult terrain or for boarding a ship at sea. I was contemplating my own irrational fear of heights when I got a tap on the shoulder from the commander telling me I was up next. Before I had the chance to protest, I was in a line and then up in the Sikorsky. A few deep breaths later, I closed my eyes and jumped, safely sliding to the ground. It was terrifying but exhilarating, and I am forever grateful for that friendly encouragement to overcome my fear of heights.
Major Dr Emma Bucknell
Jeff: We have a practice in Mount Beauty, a small Victorian country town. Falls Creek Ski Resort is 40 minutes up the road and we also run the clinic there. Our work at Falls Creek is mainly emergency based — particularly alpine and ski trauma — with broken bones, dislocations and ligament strains, and occasionally major trauma. Because we are so isolated there’s no radiology service so we do all the X-rays ourselves. We all have X-ray licences [a qualification permitting isolated GPs to take X-rays] and that adds a satisfying extra facet to the work. Albury-Wodonga, the nearest regional centre with specialist medical services, is 2.5 hours away, along a windy mountain road that is often icy or covered in snow. When it is closed, we can be completely isolated. With skiing, personally I’m happier cross-country skiing. My ideal is to go out about 6.30am and skate around the high plains and then go to work. I actually prefer skiing uphill than downhill — it’s better exercise and you don’t have to worry about the brakes. I was initially reluctant about receiving the Rural Doctor of the Year 2015 award. I don’t see myself as any different to hundreds of other dedicated rural doctors. I am very fortunate to have the support of my wife, Libby, who is also a rural doctor. I couldn’t do what I do without her.
Libby: We work together as a team with Jeff taking the more procedural role. I’m really proud of his achievements. At the moment, I do the school run to Albury with our three daughters four days a week — that’s over 1000km a week. I work in a practice in Albury, as well as in Mount Beauty. We trained a year apart at the University of Melbourne and we always wanted to work in the country. I live 2km away from my parents — this is where I was born and bred. I’ve got a great horse, and a dressage arena with an amazing view. It’s a very special part of Australia.
Dr Jeff Robinson and Dr Libby Garoni
Mount Beauty, Vic
I am completely nuts about my dog, Tambo. He is an Australian terrier. People say you buy dogs that look like yourself. The funny thing is, my dog has exactly the same hair colour as me. When he was a puppy, he was all black and tan, but he has since lost all the black. I am a redhead, and when we are snuggling, you can’t tell where my hair ends and his begins. When we go for a walk, my daughter says it looks like a bit of my hair has fallen on the ground and is running alongside me. I have knitted my dog two jackets. My friends roll their eyes, they can’t believe it. I sent one a photo of the new jumper, and she did not know how to reply.
Dr Megan Evans
I play the oboe. I started at age 42. I hadn’t done any music before then, apart from the recorder for one year in year six. I’d always wanted to play musical instruments but, being the oldest of four children, and with a father who was an orthopaedic surgeon and away a lot of the time, I never got a chance to do that until my own children got to the point where I had some time to myself. It’s the most difficult instrument in the orchestra, so I figured if I could master that, I’d probably get a place in an orchestra — as opposed to the flute or clarinet, where you have to fight with about 800 people. And it proved to be right.