History is composed of a series of changes - changes in quick succession, changes over a longer period. When the latter occur it's sometimes called the end of an era. That's what has just happened in St Kilda, where I live.

The era that has ended is the era of Dr R. J. ("Dick") O'Bryan and his surgery in Fitzroy Street. For 38 years he's been in general practice there. His patients have represented the full range of St Kilda residents, from the people who live in large and expensively renovated Victorian and Edwardian houses or smartly modernised 1920s flats to those in seedy rooms. When St Kilda had an Aboriginal community (a city council supposedly committed to "diversity" cleared it out as part of a tidy-up in preparation for that periodic curse of the district, the Grand Prix) Dick was their doctor. Dick has always done his best for all his patients but his compassion for the poor, the unfortunate and the marginalised is legendary in St Kilda. Everyone knows him for it.

Failing health and advancing years have led to the end of this era in St Kilda medical history. Dick, who once said he would never retire, has been forced to do so by the realisation that he may never again be well enough to practise. "His work has been his life," says his wife Julianna who ran the business side of the surgery. "He is very upset at having to stop now."

If Dick is upset it is not too much to say that many of his patients are devastated, and none more so than the poorer ones. "They've been knocked sideways down at the Sacred Heart Mission," says Dick's son Tom. Some of the people there, he says, the ones who have their meals at the mission and sleep in dosshouses, don't know what they're going to do. Dick O'Bryan has been their friend. He has been a doctor who treated them with dignity irrespective of their status in life. For some he has been the only person with whom they could have a reasonable conversation, perhaps the only person who regarded them with respect.

Dick's surgery was often full of such people, some of them old, some not so old but prematurely aged by a burden of life they found too heavy to cope with. Down-and-outs they are sometimes dismissively called by those more successful in their worldly existence. In the finest tradition of medical attention to the whole person Dick did his best to make sure that though they may have been down they were never out. Prescriptions came with the invaluable bonus of a sympathetic ear. If in terms of fashion Dick's surgery had the least best-dressed waiting-room crowd in St Kilda, in terms of the spectrum of human life it must have had the richest and most varied.

Not the least of the distinctive personalities in it was Dick himself. Dick is a big man, physically, intellectually and spiritually. He is tall and smiling with an untidy mass of white hair like a cartoonist's idea of an eccentric musician. In or out of the surgery - especially in the cheap but good restaurants he contrived to find (difficult in Melbourne where the one adjective tends to exclude the other) - he was always ready for a talk, anything from a quick chat to a profound discussion. Dick is a mine of information on all kinds of abstruse subjects. He is a literary man, a published poet. On his desk in the surgery, along with the day's cryptic crossword from the newspaper, there was always a serious book lying open to be taken up between patients. The preferred subjects were history and philosophy. Among the framed certificates on the wall was one testifying to Dick's graduation from a theology course under the auspices of Melbourne University.

This association with theology might be extended to Dick's approach to medicine. As a doctor he has the devotion of a missionary. He gave up a prosperous practice in Camberwell "prescribing Valium to bored housewives" to move to St Kilda and the greater challenge of helping people who hadn't had much of a chance in life. St Kilda when Dick arrived was an even more schizophrenic place than now with a few well-to-do residents in pockets of respectability and a far larger number of the poor and needy. Some lived in appalling conditions in rented rooms that ought to have been condemned. Some slept rough. In addition there was the sleazy life of Grey Street and Acland Street with sex and drugs for sale. No one who needed medical help was turned away from Dick's surgery. No one who needed medical help and couldn't get to the surgery was turned down by Dick, who over the years answered many calls to treat some unfortunate ("often not long for this world") in a grossly sub-standard, filthy rented room.

Dick's children grew up, as Julianna puts it, "with an understanding of the people who visited the surgery". Every year at Christmas and Easter Dick and Julianna made room at their table for at least a couple of Dick's lonely patients. The OAM - Medal of the Order of Australia - could not have had a more deserving recipient than Dick when he received it in 2011 for "his contribution to the community".

For a generation now St Kilda has been changing character. One by one the rooming houses have been demolished or reconstructed as desirable residences for families with gleaming four-wheel-drives and children at private schools. The squalor of the street life has given way - to some extent - to smart restaurants and groovy bars. The haves are replacing the have-nots. The amount of "affordable" accommodation decreases by the month. St Kilda is becoming more like the Camberwell Dick left nearly four decades ago. The kind of people he came to help are thinner on the ground.

There was never a computer on Dick's desk in the surgery. His patients weren't numbers in a system; their medical details were written down on cards. As every schoolteacher knows, writing something out by hand is a certain way of remembering it. Dick always remembered his patients' names and faces: he remembered them as individuals, not simply cases. There is not a name on a card in Dick's "current patients" file who will not miss that friendly surgery with its policy of no appointments (calculating the best time to drop in without encountering a long wait became something of an art form). St Kilda is not the same since that sad day some weeks ago when private misfortune obliged this most civilised and compassionate of doctors to close his door and switch off that familiar red light in Fitzroy Street for the last time.

30 March 2013

1 comment:

  1. Just a point - a 'bored housewife' in Campberwell in the 60's may well have been a woman suffering unrecognised post-natal depression after experiencing what may well have been the most profound of changes to her life - that of changing rapidly from an independent young woman with friends and interests, to being financially dependent on a husband who wasn't home very much and finding herself housebound in isolation with all the intensity of early motherhood. The era was not kind to many married women, hence the 'mother's little helper' prescription epidemic. An outmoded idea - 'bored housewife' - must be reconsidered in its true complexity.