Bruce Shepherd And Me – A Personal Tribute

(By Dr Jim Wilkinson)

I was projected into being one of Bruce Shepherd’s anaesthetists in June 1984 when I was asked to care for a theatre list in the old Mater Private Hospital. That was just after the momentous weekend when hundreds of visiting specialists who attended public hospitals resigned. The reason for the latter was the brutal attempt of the Wran Labor Government in NSW to nationalise all hospital treatment by the same doctors ( who were self employed private individuals). I had worked in the British NHS in 1975 and in socialist  Sweden for about 18 months in 1980 – 81. Swedish medicine is hopelessly inefficient. Thirty eight years on, it is no better – a 98 year old relative in Sweden needs a TUR to help his chronic retention – he has just been told that the a waiting time to see a urologist is 1 ½ years. The reason for this hopeless situation is ridiculously simple – all staff have similar pay. Yes, I was paid at a higher rate than the hospital cleaners but any pay “on the top” was taxed at 85% marginal rates. Thus my take home  pay was only $40 more than the cleaners. There is absolutely NO reason to work hard – keen young doctors and nurses are soon disabused of any enthusiasm. One of the first Swedish phrases to be learned is “Det gor inte” which means “It can’t be done”.

Professional life in NSW with Bruce was far different – a small band of loyal troopers helped him to function in those hectic years. Bruce somehow coped with running a busy orthopaedic practice, all the worry about his wife Annette who  had been struck down  by 2 strokes in the prime of life, a fossilized, reactionary AMA that itself posed a mortal risk to the profession and the daily media circus of threats and lies from government.  But on he worked. The medical anaesthetic side was professionally challenging too. Bruce was often referred very  difficult cases that other surgeons considered too difficult – some were from prestigious teaching hospitals. I saw some of these “desperados” in their homes – an old fashioned practice but very useful medically and fruitful indeed o  rapport and trust. We fixed up every one.

Bruce was superb at taking down old arthrodesed hips. Faced with a mass of bone ,making the first cut in the bone at the right level and angle was critical. Seeing the Master at work must surely have been a great experience for the  Orthopaedic Registrars whom Bruce trained. Bruce in turn had ( with a few others like the late Dr Bob Tinning) learnt from the famous Sir John Charnley in the UK.  That Orthopaedic Trainees are now firmly integrated in private hospitals remains as  a legacy from 1984. The Wran Government in NSW would have wrecked the entire system by sending doctors broke.

The image of Bruce was a complete fabrication. He was portrayed as a rich, arrogant doctor. Yes, he was well off but from his family connections (Bruce’s dad had been the largest private shareholder in BHP and a member of its Board – his wife Annette was the daughter of real estate magnate Sir Leslie Hooker).  Bruce gave generously of his personal wealth, especially for The Shepherd Centre for deaf children, founded by Annette and Bruce after both  their children, Penny and Danny were born profoundly deaf. Others more qualified than me can attest this magnanimous humanitarian work. Suffice it to say that where once deaf children were isolated and bereft of hope to ever hear or speak, now young people who have graduated from The Shepherd Centre readily stand in front of an audience and deliver a speech – even in more recent times, with an Aussie accent.

Bruce was generous to a “T”. His private persona was warm and empathic, his soft speech to patients reassuring all.  At the height of the 1984 dispute, Bruce maintained a full time surgical practice. Major joint replacements require a lot of setting up and positioning of the patient. If Bruce was held up in his consulting rooms or meetings in Canberra or elsewhere, it occasionally meant that the expression “Dr Shepherd is on his way” had to be given a broad interpretation! (No harm came to any patient as setting up the case often exceeded flying time from Canberra !).

Farewell Old Friend. What a wonderful ride it has been.

(Jim Wilkinson OAM worked with Bruce Shepherd from 1984 until Bruce’s retirement from operative surgery about year 2000.

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