50 years as a GP: Adelaide’s sari-clad Indian doctor

Adelaide’s Dr Jayalakshmi Gopalakrishna shows no sign of slowing down

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Dr Jaya Pathi obtained her MBBS from Osmania University in Hyderabad in 1967 and started working in a public hospital, while pursuing specialist training in Paediatrics simultaneously. As a married woman she moved to Jamshedpur and worked as a specialist Paediatrician at Telco hospital before migrating to Australia in the early ‘70s.

Jaya arrived in Whyalla on a Friday in 1972 and was offered a locum position on the following Monday in a small group practice.

“That is the only free weekend I ever had,” she says in a matter-of-fact way. After a year she moved to Adelaide where her husband was working and bought a practice that has been her work place ever since.

Dr Jaya.Indian Link

In the ‘70s the local Lyell McEwin Hospital’s after-hours emergency section was served by private practitioners working in the surrounding suburbs. Besides working in her own practice during the week, Jaya worked at the hospital on Sundays, thus toiling seven days a week in the first three years of her working life in Australia. She also used to assist surgeons at operating theatres and deliver babies for her patients until more staff doctors were appointed at the hospital.

Ironically, in view of her working for such a long time, some of the babies she helped to deliver are now her middle-aged patients, and a few families are third-generation patients.

Jaya was honoured by the Adelaide Northern Division of General Practice (ANDGP) when she completed 30 years of service and a decade later by the Northern Area Health Network for providing continuous medical service for over 40 years to the local community. She also served as a director on the Governing Board of ANDGP.

What motivated Jaya to take up medicine?

“As a young girl in primary school, a gynaecologist who attended my sister-in-law in an emergency received much admiration and gratitude from the family,” Jaya reminisces. “This inspired me immensely. That is the kind of work I want to do, I resolved then.”

But being the youngest member of a large family, it was a dream beyond her capacity.  Fortunately, one of her aunts came to the rescue and helped her out. Later, due to her excellent commitment and hard-work, she received much-coveted scholarship which was crucial in finishing her studies.

Dr Jaya.Indian Link

Recalling her venturing into starting her own practice in a new country, Jaya notes, “It was a bold move. With only a part-time doctor working there, the practice was run down. I had to work hard to build it up. An absence of a woman doctor nearby helped in a way. A sari-clad Indian woman doctor – yes, I come to work in sari from day one – was somewhat of a novelty. Presently, it is a talking point for some of my patients who comment whenever I wear a new one.”

Talking about the pleasures and pains of a solo practitioner, an extinct species, Jaya says, “It gives me total clinical freedom without commercial pressure from practice owners. On the flip side, there are too many hassles. There is no colleague around to talk to when a complex case comes up, putting a greater onus on you. If it is hard for a male to work as a solo, it is doubly hard for women with child bearing and rearing responsibilities. I resumed work six weeks after the delivery of my two children, both caesareans. I seldom took part in their school social and sporting activities, missing a large part of their growing up. I make it up now by baby-sitting my grandchildren two days a week when I am not at work.”

Counting the perils of practising as a solo doctor, Jaya adds, “Another problem is when I am sick for a day or two, I still have to turn up for work, as no locum will be available at short notice. I used to take a week-long break between Christmas and New Year travel around Australia. Now I take three weeks break and visit the countries on my bucket list.”

Dr Jaya.Indian Link

“Food was a major problem during the early years as we are vegetarians. Neither my husband nor I knew any cooking and there was no Indian grocery store here. We made a 36-hour return coach trip to Sydney to buy grocery from Easy Moses in Bondi. On the social front there were only a handful of Indians, and no videos or movies were available for entertainment. Now Indian migrants are better off in this regard but face issues in getting jobs in their professional areas.”

About her future-plans, she reveals that her family tells her to call it a day.

But do you reckon she’ll listen?

“As long as my brain is ticking, I will go on,” she concludes with a smile. “Like Duracell battery!”