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Homecoming

Cate Swannell
Med J Aust || doi: 10.5694/mja16.0404C1
Published online: 4 April 2016

Dr Paul Carter moved to the country and regained his sense of self, sense of community and sense of belonging. Along the way he also rediscovered his love of medicine

DR Paul Carter was in a bad place.

The end of his 13-year marriage had come as a complete shock to him, his Melbourne practice was busy to the point of being overwhelming, the city itself was getting him down, and he was in the grip of a crippling bout of depression.

He was a long way from rural Warwickshire in the UK, his birthplace and home county until 1976, when he and his wife Linda emigrated to Australia. He was alone, lonely and wondering what the point of his life was.

He decided to quit medicine and move to the country, back to his roots. He found a beautiful 400-acre farm on top of a hill, overlooking a lake near Lancefield in central Victoria, fell in love with it and the nearby town, and set about agisting racehorses for a living.

“Then I ran into the local GP,” Dr Carter tells the MJA. “And he gave me a job. That was 28 years ago. I’m still here and I’ve loved every single minute.”

Lancefield was a major gateway to the Victorian goldfields in the 1860s, and its population boomed to around 13 000 — “it had a dozen pubs and a dozen brothels”, Dr Carter says.

“And then it went to sleep for 100 years, and it’s only recently that it’s started to wake up. It hasn’t been buggered up by progress.”

These days Lancefield’s population is under 2500. For a long time Dr Carter was the only GP in the area.

“Now the practice has four doctors, all IMGs (international medical graduates) with me as a mentor. They’re beautiful young people, about the same age as my children. A couple of them have been blown away by how pleasant [life is here], so I’m very hopeful they’ll stay in country practice.”

Dr Carter knows he owes a lot to the community of Lancefield. As hard as he works for the townspeople, he acknowledges it’s a two-way relationship.

“I was quite unwell [when I came here],” he says. “I’ve come to realise over the years that just as I have looked after the locals, they have looked after me as well. It’s a two-way business and we’re taking the journey together.”

Dr Carter didn’t start out his medical career as a general practitioner. After training at Guy’s Hospital in London, he worked at the Royal Melbourne Hospital as a pathologist.

“After a while I decided that I didn’t go to medical school to spend my life looking down a microscope,” he says. “I wanted to interact with patients.”

GP fellowship followed, but it wasn’t until his move to the country that he felt he had hit his medical straps.

“I’m not very good at boundaries,” he says. “My friends are my patients. You just have to be a tiny bit wary of it. But that closeness to the community allows me to be of greater service because it’s a holistic approach.”

Dr Carter is now a strong advocate for attracting young doctors to rural practice and spends plenty of time speaking at postgraduate careers nights and talking all things rural with students from Deakin University, Western Sydney University and Notre Dame.

“The tide is turning,” Dr Carter says, referring to the difficulties in recruiting doctors to country towns. “Ten, 15, 20 years ago most medical students were from private schools, and they didn’t want to move out of the cities.

“These days there is a much better spectrum of people studying medicine, and they have more open minds about living and working in rural settings.”

Dr Carter has written two books about his life – Tales of a country doctor, and Further tales of a country doctor. Each chapter is an anecdote — situations that can only happen in the country, patients he has treated, townspeople he loves, and lessons learned along the way.

“There can be few more enjoyable, or indeed privileged, positions than that of being a small country-town doctor,” he writes in the preamble to the first book. “Over the years, in both private and professional capacities, my fellow community members have generously taken me into their lives and opened themselves up to me.”

Now remarried, and with eight grandchildren, Dr Carter is living his dream.

“When I first arrived in Australia in 1976, I felt like I had come home,” he says. “Australians are caring and tolerant and entertaining.”

While his life fell apart around him in Melbourne, he lost sight of that.

“Working in the city was getting me down — I felt like I was living in a timewarp. But coming to Lancefield … I was born in a rural village so, in a way, I’ve come back to where I started.”

  • Cate Swannell


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