Family docs put the care in healthcare

In my early thirties, I had root canal therapy that went horribly wrong. My teeth have an extra canal and the dentist missed it, accidentally leaving live nerve in the tooth. I arrived home from the surgery late on a Friday with an unbearable ache at the site that I put up with because the dentist had warned me there might be some discomfort, and you don’t know what you don’t know.

It got worse. I remember lying beside a heater through the Saturday night, burning the skin of my cheek in an effort to get relief, sharp pains now shooting from the tooth to random places all over my head. By 7am Sunday, no longer in my right mind with pain, I went to the corporate 24-hour medical practice up the road from where we lived. I told the young GP on shift, soft eyes, moustache, long narrow face, what was wrong, that the dentist wasn’t available until Monday, and then burst into tears. The GP stared at me momentarily, eyes wide, then took out his prescription pad and studied it. “I’m going to give you stronger pain killers,” he said, “and something to sleep.” I was out of his office in less than three minutes. 

It wasn’t until later, when I was able to think straight, that I realised how little the interaction with the young GP had in common with my experiences of my own GP, who we call Dr Tig. Dr Tig has spent her career in the family medical practice she and a couple of colleagues started. She used to run chronically late but I never saw anyone get angry about it – when you see Dr Tig she makes you feel like you’re the only patient on her list. She always comes out with a big smile when she greets each patient. I’ve seen her in an emergency. I’ve seen her when the news is bad. I’ve told her things I haven’t told anyone else on the planet. And always, she’s the same intelligent, thoughtful and kindly professional. We know one another a little. I trust her, that’s the thing; I trust her.

When I was writing In Falling Snow, I read a lot of the history of women in medicine. The early women doctors - the ones who started Royaumont Hospital in France in World War I - had faced enormous challenges to be allowed to study medicine and be registered as doctors. They brought opportunities for women to see a woman doctor for the first time and an understanding that was new and important. Now we can't imagine a world where all of the doctors are men but in the early 20th century you had very few options to see a woman doctor. 

When I was researching maternity care for The Birth Wars, many people said women want to see the same carer through pregnancy, birth and post-birth. This was usually put as an argument in support of midwifery which can provide this continuity of care. But every time I heard the argument, I thought of Dr Tig, who’d been my doctor for 20 years before I had a child and who’s been my doctor since. Like many GPs, Dr Tig no longer provides birth care. But through the minefield of trying to get pregnant in my late 30s, to pregnancy and the changes it wreaked, to life with a newborn, the terror of injecting a 4-month-old – I could take on trust that Dr Tig knew more than Google about immunisation – and my son’s split chin and stitches at 5 – “Dr Tig hurt me but I’d rather have Dr Tig hurt me than anyone,” Dr Tig was there.  

And now we’ve come full circle. When my son goes to see her, he and Dr Tig chat about knee joints and heel pain and she reminds him to wear a helmet on his skateboard and he says of course he will. “Are you too old for a lollypop?” she asks at the end. “Never,” he says. My son trusts Dr Tig and I’m glad he does, because he will surely need someone to talk to in the future who isn’t his mother or father or a friend. He will need a healthcare professional, and I’m glad it will be a healthcare professional who understands that the word care is in there for a reason.

From 21 July, the Australian Medical Association will celebrate Family Doctor Week. I for one am grateful that family doctors as a species – endangered a few decades ago, squeezed by Medicare and corporations and without much in the way of role recognition – have adapted to the world they’ve found themselves in. They’re not only still with us; they’re specialists in their own right, and their numbers are growing. On 21 July, I hope it’s Dr Tig and family doctors like her who get the lollypops.