All About The Quirks - Tales From A Rural GP Locum

By , Max Higgs published on 09/09/2020

We were introduced to the delightful Dr Max Higgs all the way back in May (and hasn't a lot changed in that time), when we published some of his experiences as a locum doctor in rural and regional Australia.

Max returns this month with another instalment, ruminating on just some of the characters he's encountered while working in rural practice as a Locum GP


My appointment list on the first morning promised meetings with Bob, Bernie, Barry, Doug, Frank, Ned and Rob. The women were represented by Catherine, Lillian and Joanne – who also wanted her two children, Annabelle and Alexander, seen. With no tricky elocution to concern me I approached the waiting room with confidence, called Bob, and was completely ignored. Bob and Barry were animatedly reviewing last week’s cattle sale. Catherine is Joanne’s aunt by marriage and was bringing her niece up to speed with a blow by blow description of her recent hysterectomy. Annabelle and Alexander were bored and stared mutely at their phones.

It was an easy morning’s work. The medical problems being, in keeping with the names of their bearers, common and uncomplicated, I found time to do a few extra little things, like making sure that all the allergy lists were up to date. Doug comes out in a rash with penicillin but apart from that I drew a blank, everyone else being able to tolerate whatever they can swallow. The concept of food allergies has not caught on in the country. Lactose intolerance is unknown, coeliac disease unheard of—no one identified as being even the tiniest bit ‘gluten sensitive’—and everyone can eat eggs. I did hear of one kid at school with a nut allergy. His name is Kaiden and his family moved here from the city last year. There are no vegetarians, which doesn’t mean that animals are seen only as a source of protein; their relationship with humans is more nuanced than that. 

It took some shouting to summon June, not because she was deep in conversation, but because she has a new dog with expensive tastes. “You’ll have to speak up doctor! I’m as deaf as a post! The dog ate my hearing aids and they cost me one thousand dollars each”. And to make matters worse “I found my bottom dentures on the floor yesterday. The little bugger had been having a go at them too. Can’t afford to keep him at this rate, he’ll have to go”. Fortunately, June’s experience is exceptional, dogs are plentiful and generally coexist in respectful harmony with their owners. I have seen no cats but the capricious creatures are out there, biding their time before attacking unsuspecting innocents. Henry turned up on the weekend with a nasty infected hand, his wife’s cat having decided to have a piece of him whilst he was quietly watching the evening news.

Pets can be a health hazard but working with sheep and cattle on a commercial basis is pretty safe. On a typical grazing property the sheep outnumber the farmers by three thousand-to-one, and the cattle around one hundred-to-one. Dogs bring the ratios back in the farmer’s favour a little but the scarcity of stock-induced injuries is still remarkable. I spoke to one eighty-six-year-old cattleman who has “Been in the game for seventy years and only had two busters with cows”. On the rare occasions that sheep and farmers do clash it tends to end badly for both. Ken was knocked over by a big merino ram in the sale yards yesterday and is not happy. “No bastard would help me doc. I’d just brought the ram too. I told the auctioneer to shoot him, staggered over to me ute and drove home in disgust”.

Relationships between men and horses are hazardous. Horses can break bones and bank balances, and make the owner look very foolish in the process. There are many badly broken horse breakers—the most experienced have monogrammed moon boots, bespoke back braces and can always tell the locum where to find the closest orthopaedic surgeon. I have been told that the sport of kings is not what it once was either: “Racing used to be full of villains, but they were honest villains; you can’t trust any bastard now.” And: “The two things guaranteed to make a fool of a man are women and horses”. Bill’s experience franked the latter truism. An avid racing man, Bill bred his own thoroughbred on the farm and was so besotted with the precious animal that he confided to his wife “He’s a ripper you know. I reckon I might race him”. “Yeah, and I reckon you might beat him” she ungraciously replied. Three years, four trainers, forty thousand dollars and no prize money later, Bill conceded defeat.

Feral animals are unpredictable and untrustworthy, and working with them is risky. Arm young men with guns, alcohol and testosterone, set them loose amongst wild pigs and bloodshed will follow. It will not just be the pigs that bleed. Herding wild goats is physically safe but psychologically challenging. A goat’s agility, intelligence, ability to be two thoughts ahead of the game, unknowable eyes and catlike personalities can permanently warp the human mind. Wild camels are just very big and very dangerous; it does not pay to upset a camel.

An ex rodeo rider sought my opinion on his “crook shoulder”. He had caught and hobbled a large bull camel with a view to retraining as a racing animal. The camel resented the idea and next morning “the bugger tripped me up. The hobble chains got wrapped around me leg and I went arse over and wrecked me shoulder”.

Country women generally enjoy more harmonious alliances with animals than men do. Hence, Tammy wants to “die in the show ring or the shearing shed doing what I love” and fourteen-year-old Sharron is aiming to “become a Koala Spotter “ (yes, the job does exist) when she leaves school.

To protect your offspring from allergies name them sensibly, surround them with animals, and feed them meat.

Keep it simple.

Thank you to our guest writer, Dr Max Higgs. A former country GP, Max has been working as a rural locum GP since selling his Inglewood practice. This article originally appeared in The Medical Republic under the title Dog Eats Hearing Aids And Other Rural Yarns. You can read more of Max's work at the Grumpy Old Doctor. You can follow Max's rural locum adventures on Instagram

If you haven’t had the chance to locum in a rural or remote town in Australia or New Zealand and want to know more, it's a great experience and we recommend you reach out to a member of our rural generalist team. Many of our rural locum roles involve hospital work. So in addition to having your FRACGP or FACRRRM, you will require ALS2 or equivalent.

If you are a rural locum doctor and have a ripping yarn to share, we’d love to hear from you.


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