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Having it all

Annabel McGilvray
Med J Aust
Published online: 18 November 2013

Award-winning general practitioner and businesswoman Dr Jennifer Wray explains how giving to her local community and the junior medical community have helped her “have it all”.

The prospect of being in hospital alone for 3 weeks would likely be a scary one for most 7-year-olds, but for the young Jenny Wray, it was a life-changing and positive experience.

Fifty-eight years later, you can hear the smile in Dr Wray’s voice as she recounts how she came to be a doctor.

“I had pneumonia and was left in hospital for 3 weeks”, she tells the MJA.

“I loved it. I loved the smell of the hospital, I loved the nurses and I loved the drama of it. I was fascinated.”

Dr Wray grew up near Naracoorte, in rural south-east South Australia, where her family ran a sheep property. She graduated from Monash University in Melbourne in 1971, married Jock and headed straight back to the country.

“There was never any doubt about me practising in the country”, Dr Wray says. “Most of the doctors where I grew up were GPs, so it was always on the cards that that would be the direction I headed in.”

A 1977 family visit to her husband’s relatives, who owned property on the south coast of New South Wales, led to a permanent change.

“My kids, who were then 3 and 1, fell in love with the area and Narooma needed a doctor”, Dr Wray says.

Thirty-five years later, Dr Wray owns two thriving practices, one in Narooma and one further south in Bermagui, which provide health care to a community that includes a large concentration of Indigenous Australians, and a growing population of young people returning to the area.

The Lighthouse Surgery has three full-time GPs, four GP registrars, an intern in the Prevocational GP Placement Program and two medical students.

Unsurprisingly, mentoring is something Dr Wray takes very seriously indeed.

“When I started mentoring students I didn’t think I had much to offer, but medical students will tell you that they are grateful for any help”, she says. Eighteen students a year now spend time in her practice.

In 2003, Dr Wray set up the Lighthouse Scholarship Fund to help rural students undertaking tertiary studies away from home.

“For our little community it has made a difference between kids not having an opportunity and having one, and it’s actually had a ripple effect.”

In 2011, Dr Wray was named the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners GP of the year, and this year she was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for her services to rural medicine.

When Telstra contacted her to tell her she had been nominated for the NSW Business Women Business Owner of the Year award — which she then won — one look at the application forms told Dr Wray that it was going to be a long process. It didn’t tell her how useful it would be.

“The application process probably took me 50 to 60 hours, but it was the most valuable experience”, she says.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to look at myself, my practice, and my relationships and to start thinking about a succession plan.”

Not that retirement is much on her mind just yet — “I’ve probably got a few more years in me” — but there is an acknowledgement that a successful practice can be “unrelenting”.

“I have really worked incredibly hard, especially over the past 3 or 4 years”, she says. “Whenever there are more patients than doctors it is unrelenting, but I have been really blessed.

“I have been lucky enough to have it all. I’ve learned over the years what makes me happy and I live by that. I’m passionate about life and this community.”

She has five “Golden Rules”: keep fit; keep busy — “Not just work, but have plenty of things to do”; stay engaged with friends and family; keep some time for herself — “I do a little meditating”; and serve others.

She is watching the new federal government with interest and has a list of priorities she wishes would get the attention of the politicians.

“Some of the early initiatives Tony Abbott put in place when he was health minister have stood the test of time”, Dr Wray says. “Some have been dismantled — like the dental scheme — which is a pity, I think.”

Given the opportunity to run primary health care for a day, Dr Wray says she would do three things: simplify red tape and paperwork; make childhood immunisation mandatory; and introduce free dental, skin and foot care for those in need.

For now, however, Dr Jennifer Wray is more than content to focus on her community’s health needs and mentoring young people through their studies.

“I just love coming to work”, she says.

  • Annabel McGilvray


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