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Veteran GP to keep ‘making a difference’

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Serena Kirby, Denmark Bulletin

Denmark’s Dr Virginia Longley has served 50 years as a general practitioner and has seen radical changes in medicine and patient care.

Dr Virginia Longley
Dr Virginia Longley has seen many changes in medicine in 50 years as a GP. Photo: Serena Kirby

Originally from the Scandinavian Denmark, Virginia moved to WA with her family after her father died when she was 13.

“My father was Danish but my mother was Australian so we came to be closer to family support,” Virginia said.

With no such thing as a ‘gap year’ when Virginia was growing up, she worked every school holiday to put money aside to attend university as soon as she left school.

“After graduating from WA University I worked at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and really wanted to become an ear, nose and throat surgeon,” Virginia said.

“I started the training and passed my exams but for family reasons I ended up becoming an emergency registrar.”

After a number of years in that role Virginia took up a GP position in a Spearwood clinic.

For 23 years she cared for the diverse needs of the local community and said she ‘totally loved it’.

“It was a wonderful multicultural community of market gardeners but by the time I left the developers had moved in and most of the gardens were gone,” Virginia said.

“It was around that time that Silver Chain was looking for a GP for the Walpole/Denmark area so I relocated and stayed in that job for a decade.”

In 2003 Virginia joined the now retired Dr Tine Adams and Dr Jane James in the Strickland Street surgery (now known as Denmark Family Practice).

She laughs at the coincidence of being reunited with those two doctors who, although slightly older, had graduated with her from UWA many years before.

“I really enjoy the challenge and variety of work a GP role offers,” she said.

“Being able to look after my own patients and basically care for them from birth to death is a privilege.

“It’s of great benefit to the patients too as they can see their ‘own’ doctor.

“That doesn’t happen in the city and you become very disconnected from the patients.”

On reflecting on how things have changed since she started her GP career, Virginia said it was a case of fending for yourself when you first started working.

Also doctors never had the level of fear of being sued which is prevalent now.

“You did the best you could at the time but sadly now many doctors are too scared to make decisions on their own for fear of litigation,” Virginia said.

Virginia counts herself lucky not to have been sued in 50 years.

Back in her training days, students were taught to be both physicians and surgeons and were more ‘hands on’.

“We undertook what we called ‘open surgery’ without all the instruments that now replace your hands such as laparoscopic tools,” she said.

“We were expected to be able to take out tonsils and appendix and deliver babies.”

Virginia has done a few homebirths and recalls spending a memorable Christmas Day on the floor with naked patients and a candle.

She decided then to do only hospital births and leave the home births to others.

When Virginia started in medicine there were no CAT scans, no MRI machines and not even ultrasound equipment.

To make a diagnosis a doctor closely examined the patient and used the symptoms to determine what was wrong.

“We did have X-Rays and would use intravenous pyelograms, where you inject dye into the patient then take an X-Ray, to show up areas of concern,” Virginia said.

“We don’t have those now.

“Also patients with ulcers were treated with surgery.

“Now we know ulcers are caused by bacteria so we just give them antibiotics.”

Virginia said one of her most positive moments was when a patient was brought to Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital by ambulance and presumed dead.

She was told the chances of resuscitation were poor but, with the help of the team, they got the person’s heart going again and that person survived.

“It’s those moments where you really know you make a difference,” she said.

On the flipside Virginia said her biggest concern in recent years has been the rise in mental health issues among young people.

“Youth anxiety is very sad,” she said.

“The pressure around them and what’s happening in the world, combined with the constant attachment to mobile phones, social media and bullying is extremely worrying.”

When it comes to contemplating retirement, Virginia said she had planned to retire in a few years’ time when she was 75 but due to the impact COVID-19 has had on GP services she has decided to put that plan on hold.

She is passionate about medicine and what she does.

“That’s why I am still here,” Virginia said.

Denmark Bulletin 13 January 2022

This article appeared in the Denmark Bulletin, 13 January 2022.

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