Well known local physician Dr John Wenman has a career that’s spanned Sydney, Vietnam and Coffs Harbour. Now, some forty-six years after graduating from university, Dr Wenman has witnessed many changes in the medical profession – but the one thing that remains constant is his unwavering commitment towards helping people manage their health …
When did you first decide to become a doctor?
I was 14 when I decided to be a doctor. I’d found an old text book of medicine that had been thrown out, I read through it, and it fascinated me!
I didn’t talk to my parents about studying medicine until I’d gone into 5th year of high school, because I was still thinking of other possibilities like engineering, vet science, and policing. I decided in the final year of high school that I really wanted to go to med school, and I asked my parents’ permission. Initially this was a shock to them, because they weren’t very wealthy – particularly my father, who asked if I could do it part-time. When I told him it was six years full-time – he almost had a stroke. He came back the next day and suggested that I might like to study pharmacy as an alternative, but I told him, “No”. That’s when they decided they’d help me as best they could.
I joined the Royal Australian Air Force at the end of third year medicine. I was lucky enough to get an Air Force scholarship, and they subsidised my studies and paid me a salary. I had to guarantee I’d work full-time in the RAAF for four years as a medical officer, which I later did.
I studied Medicine at the University of Sydney and graduated in 1966.
What do you recall as being some of the most important things you learned during your first medical placement?
My intern year was at Sutherland Hospital in Sydney. The important things I learned at Sutherland were the fact that you had to work very hard to be a doctor; there were long hours, there was a lot of emotional trauma from people suffering injuries and dying, and it taught me a lot about humanity … This made me even more determined to try to be a successful doctor and to assist them.
Describe how your career has tracked to date …
I was at Sutherland Hospital in Sydney for my intern year, then I was medical registrar at the Air Force hospital at Richmond for four years. During that time I had a short posting to Vietnam as a medical officer in the number two squadron during the war, at Phan Rang.
I then came back and was posted to the United States at San Antonio, Texas, where I undertook a three month Diploma in Aerospace Medicine, at the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, Brooks Air Force Base.
I returned to Australia as Chief Instructor in Aviation Medicine at the Institute of Aviation Medicine, Point Cooke, Victoria, where I completed two years, and then I resigned from the RAAF and became a CMO (Career Medical Officer) of internal medicine at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney.
After a year at St. Vincent’s, I transferred to the Repatriation General Hospital, Concord, as Medical Registrar, sat for and passed the physicians’ exam and then made a decision to move to Coffs Harbour as a physician in general medicine. I came to Coffs Harbour in 1974.
I’ve been here ever since, and I’ve developed sub specialty training and qualifications in Gastroenterology and more recently, I’ve become trained and specialise in cosmetic medicine.
What’s encouraged you to specialise in your chosen field?
Gastroenterology is my predominant speciality. I was attracted to the speciality of internal medicine, because it improved and increased one’s knowledge of different disease processes. I became interested in Gastroenterology, because Dr Peter Gerard and myself realised that there was a need to develop an endoscopy service in Coffs Harbour, and that prompted us both to train in endoscopies, both gastroscopy and colonoscopy. We developed an endoscopy service for the town back in the ‘70s, and it has continued and flourished ever since.
After working in medicine for such a long time, what is it that inspires you to keep helping people?
My whole life has been attuned to helping people. I continue to enjoy the academic side of medicine, and I continue to enjoy the human side of medicine … that is, being able to help people overcome adversity and illness.
What’s a story you’d like to share with readers that perhaps showcases a lasting memory you have of a medical incident?
A case that comes to mind is one that happened about two or three years ago, when an elderly friend of mine fell into a wheelie bin while trying to recover some documents. She dislocated her shoulder and developed a small laceration on the other arm. She went to the emergency department at the hospital, the shoulder was reduced back into place, and a dressing was applied to the laceration.
Several days later, she went to her local doctor complaining that there was discomfort in the lacerated area, and she was prescribed antibiotics. A day or two later, the pain in the arm increased, so she went back to the emergency department.
At that stage she was having some difficulty in swallowing and felt nauseated, and she was given some Maxalon tablets for nausea and admitted to the medical ward.
It was just by sheer accident that her daughter was visiting from Sydney, and she was very anxious about her mother’s health. She rang me and begged me to see her mother, as she was no longer able to swallow and was having severe muscle spasms. As a personal friend, I felt a duty of care to see her. I was aghast when I saw her, because I felt she had developed Tetanus. As it transpired, that diagnosis was right. I viewed the records, and she had not received any Tetanus injections. She was admitted to the intensive care ward at Coffs Harbour, where her condition deteriorated and she was placed on life support. She was transferred to St. Vincent’s Hospital intensive care unit, where she remained on life support for approximately seven weeks. She survived her ordeal and remains fit and well to this day.
I had never seen a case of Tetanus before. I was told it was the first case of Tetanus at St. Vincent’s since 1976. The moral lesson is that even with a minor laceration, one must always inquire about the status of the patient’s Tetanus vaccination and if there is any doubt, a vaccination should be given.
Considering all the advances that have been made in medicine over time, is there anything you feel medical science/modern physicians could still be doing better?
There is always room for improvement. The major problem for medical care of the community has always been a matter of government funding and staffing.
In the early days at Coffs Harbour Base Hospital, there were only three physicians working on a one in three roster, and the workload was intolerable, exhausting and frustrating to the point where often we would have 50 – 60 patients to look after in hospital.
We didn’t always have registrars or resident medical officer support. It was not until we said we could no longer practice safe medical care under these circumstances that we were able to achieve appropriate funding.
In the future, I would presume we will see a cure for cancer and for HIV aids; we are already seeing cures for Hepatitis B and C coming to the fore. I’m sure that with further research, a whole raft of diseases will be much better treated and managed.
Thanks Dr Wenman.
Interview by Jo Atkins.
This story was published in issue 24 of the Coffs Coast Focus