Almanac Review – Dr G, MD: The Trials of a Woman in Medicine (Barry Oakley)


This is an amusing read, a series of anecdotes recounting the experiences of a 40-something female cardiologist who conducts her medical practice in the Blue Mountains, NSW.


‘As told to’ is a device employed when the ghostwriter is better known than the subject of the memoir, although in this instance it also preserves Dr. G’s anonymity. It is an advantage here, as Oakley’s sparkling language enriches the exploits and accidents which befall the intrepid Dr. G. As the ghost finds the rhythms of language and the perspective of the subject, the book succeeds  in its humorous intent. Oakley has been a significant figure in Australian literary circles for half a century, certainly since his breakout novel Salute to the Great McCarthy. He has enjoyed a storied career as a novelist, playwright and reviewer, as well as a decade spent at The Australian as literary editor.


The anecdotes are loosely connected by the narrative of a running feud with the imperiously patronising senior MO, Milligan, who – as he is appears in Dr. G’s telling – embodies the worst characteristics of his type; sexist, self-important and contemptuous of those he regards as his lesser in the profession (which seems to be just about everyone). In addition he has that blind spot of lacking self-awareness to the extent that he is blissfully unaware of the limits of his expertise.


A range of issues which confront Dr. G, including both medical and inter-personal, have relevance not just for the medical profession, but also the wider community. The problems of an ageing population including but not limited to their health needs are especially important in the area where Dr. G practises, but also apply to many parts of contemporary Australia. Problem patients present in a variety of guises in order to say nothing about attending family members, friends and associates of the afflicted. The account of the death of a former celebrated sportsman with his wife and mistress both at his bedside maintaining impressive cordiality is one of the examples of challenges taxing Dr. G. There are also the difficult moments caused by the inevitable personal disclosures which can cause embarrassment when the persons involved might be encountered while doing the weekend shopping. The relative anonymity of suburbia means that this hazard is rare for the doctor in a city practice.


The tone throughout the book is light, even flippant. However weighty issues are subject matter for some of Dr. G’s recollections, such as the ethics surrounding assisted dying, problems of diagnoses which end up being weighed by lawyers in the Coroner’s Court, and ethical dilemmas around cause-effect assessments which can determine the outcome of compensation claims.


The interface between the law and medicine provide ingredients for several of the anecdotes. Given Dr. G’s irreverent attitude towards authority, it is no surprise that she is impatient with some of the black-white (hindsight-enhanced) certainties of legal judgments when assessing medical decisions made under pressure and with necessarily imperfect knowledge. The Civil Aviation Safety Authority, medical indemnity insurers, compensation tribunals and the Coroner all seem ranged against her. She also runs into trouble with Health Department bureaucrats, and the Catholic Church, both within and outside her medical practice.


Inevitable conflict between professionals is another source of strife for Dr. G. While this is a familiar problem in many workplaces, the sensitivity of decisions in a medical environment makes such relationships especially problematic. The specialist who undertakes “risky” procedures, the ageing colleague who perhaps should be out to pasture and the effort to engage cooperatively where personal animosities are in evidence make up some of the situations discussed. One case considered is that of the footballer who died of heart failure during a match after being passed fit to play by a club doctor who may have been influenced to cut corners by his hopes for the team’s success. This will be familiar to football enthusiasts, even if the cavalier attitude of former times seems to be in retreat as reflected in contemporary attitudes to concussion.


The book is diverting; it confronts the reader with some thought-provoking questions in an entertaining fashion. While others such as Karen Hitchcock have presented these issues to general audiences in a less frivolous fashion, Dr. G’s account is a worthy alternative approach.


Dr G, MD: The Trials of a Woman in Medicine as told to Barry Oakley can be found online on bookstores such as Booktopia.



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