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.
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
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
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’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 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 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 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
I practise medicine with my left hand — it runs along in the background — saving the dominant hand for my real passions. I work 40-50 hours a week as a GP. In the evenings, I write, and I’ve had three books published in Australia. One, Leila’s Secret, was briefly a bestseller last year. But the core of my life now is an electronic generator, to be launched in a few months’ time. The machine I’ve developed produces electricity with more than 150% efficiency, which sounds impossible. It is going to revolutionise clean energy. It seems delusional, but it works. I have a bad habit of breaking the law, and this time I have broken the second law of thermodynamics. It takes AC current — let’s say 100W AC goes in — and 150W comes out. People are going to hammer you for writing about this and say it’s insane. But the Crossfire generator is patented and contracted to a large international generator manufacturer in Australia. Growing up in the poorest parts of Iran, and then coming to Australia as a refugee, has made me determined to do something about the cost of electricity. Power is everything — for your medicine, your food, your clean water and your air-conditioning. With my Masters in Electronics, I felt I had to do something. Electricity is just moving electrons in a conductor. Moving electrons are everywhere — we’re swimming in an ocean of them. Asking us to pay for electricity is like asking a fish to pay for water. When you walk, you get static electricity on your shirt. We just need a better way to harvest it. Using fossil fuels to generate electricity is laughable really, and it’s destroying our planet. So in the past four years, I’ve put all my energy into a mission to modify power generation. I went to the edge of shattering my family. I was working in my garage, which is basically a big lab. I would say goodnight to my wife at 11pm and then go to the garage and I’d work until 2am or 3am, and sometimes all night. I have spent more than $200,000 on this project. And then, four months ago, I achieved it. I bypassed Lenz’s law. If you’re passionate about something, you find a way to do it.
Dr Kooshyar Karimi
Northern Beaches, NSW
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.