Australian Medical Association Queensland president Dr Dilip Dhupelia at AMA House in Brisbane, surrounded by portraits of former AMAQ presidents. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Australian Medical Association Queensland president Dr Dilip Dhupelia at AMA House in Brisbane, surrounded by portraits of former AMAQ presidents. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

Why doctor could never return home to practise

Whites only. Children are swinging on merry-go-rounds, salt air in their nostrils. Squeals echo from inside waterslide tubes and people ride rollercoasters and Ferris wheels. It's a joyful, family day out. But to take part, you have to be white.

A Valiant sedan packed with children pulls in and angle parks, part of the family's Sunday afternoon drive ritual. But they can only watch. Even getting out of the car at this beachside fun park is forbidden. Their lives are dictated by the colour of their skin.

That was life growing up in 1960s Durban, South Africa, for Australian Medical ­Association Queensland (AMAQ) president Dr Dilip Dhupelia, 66.

"My fun was to watch the white children ­having fun," Dhupelia recalls with a wistful smile, not a hint of bitterness in his voice. "That was enjoyment for me."

Australian Medical Association Queensland president Dr Dilip Dupelia. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Australian Medical Association Queensland president Dr Dilip Dupelia. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

In the evenings, every so often, Dhupelia's father Himatlal, a Durban-born businessman, known to many as Babu, would also take his wife Jaya, four daughters and two sons to the whites-only drive-in cinema.

They'd sit, crammed into the family sedan, parked outside the fence, watching the latest movie without being able to hear a word of dialogue.

Life was cruel growing up in Apartheid South Africa but Dhupelia didn't know any different.

"It was the way of life we were brought up with and we just accepted it," he says.

"Even going to the library in Durban, you couldn't use the toilets as a non-white."

Being of Indian descent, Dhupelia was ­forbidden from sitting on the grass in whites-only parks in his home town and from using public telephones because "they didn't want you to breathe your 'germs' into the handpiece".

At sporting events, he would sit on the ground in the uncovered "non-whites" section, a fenced off area with obstructed vision, barracking for the all-white South African cricket, rugby union and soccer teams.

"All the covered stands were only for whites," he says. "But I was a sports fanatic and I followed South African sport until I left, even though the teams were whites only."

Whites only area| on a South African beach during Apartheid.
Whites only area| on a South African beach during Apartheid.

Under the Apartheid regime's Group Areas Act, which passed in 1950, the year before ­Dhupelia was born, different racial groups were designated different parts of the city to reside in, resulting in thousands of forced removals.

The best inner-city areas were allocated to white people.

There were separate areas for Indians, such as the Dhupelias; for those of mixed race, known as "the coloureds", and also for black ­Africans.

"The way Apartheid worked was that the whites got the best privileges of everything and then the Indians got the next best, then the coloureds and black Africans got the least," Dhupelia explains.

There was a distinct racial hierarchy. But Dhupelia says he was never brought up to hate white people. 

"We were brought up to treat everyone the same," he says. "My father had a lot of white friends. He had some business dealings with them that he wasn't allowed to have, but he did."

Dilip Dhupelia’s Dad Himatlal meeting meeting with South African heart surgeon Dr Christiaan Barnard.
Dilip Dhupelia’s Dad Himatlal meeting meeting with South African heart surgeon Dr Christiaan Barnard.


EARLY AMBITION

Dhupelia was six years old when he realised he wanted to be a doctor, inspired by the example set by his parents.

Although they were not health professionals themselves, they were always "doing things for people".

"Doing ­something for the community was inbred in me," Dhupelia says.

"I always felt that I wanted to help people from when I was very young. There was just one dream and that was to become a doctor."

As a teenager, he recalls writing an ­assignment on the world's first heart transplant, performed by South African cardiac surgeon Dr Christiaan Barnard in December, 1967, at the whites-only Groote Schuur Hospital, in Cape Town.

Barnard transplanted the heart of car crash victim Denise Darvall into patient Louis Washkansky, who regained full consciousness to be able to talk to his wife, but died 18 days later of pneumonia.

While other boys kept newspaper clippings of sports stars, Dhupelia was cutting out articles on the heart transplant.

"I was always medically oriented," he says.

His father, an Indian community leader who owned a chain of men's and women's fashion stores, later met Barnard. Decades on, Dhupelia still has a treasured, black and white photo of that meeting.

Dilip Dhupelia’s late parents Jaya and Himatlal.
Dilip Dhupelia’s late parents Jaya and Himatlal.

Animosity with the Apartheid regime only surfaced when Dhupelia was unable to get a place in medical school in South Africa.

­Although he had been educated well at Sastri College, a prestigious Indian high school with good teachers, Apartheid meant there were few university places for people of Indian descent to study medicine in his homeland.

Dhupelia would need to leave to fulfil his dream. His older sister, Indira, nine years his senior, had already paved the way for him, studying medicine in Ireland.

Reluctantly, he left Durban for Dublin in 1970, soon after his dad had suffered a "massive" heart attack.

"I didn't want to leave but my ­father told me: 'No, you've got to become the doctor that you want to become'," Dhupelia ­recalls.

"He always told us his investment in us would be our education. I can honestly say I had legendary parents. It was very hard for my Mum that she was losing her eldest son. But they were brave enough. They knew that my opportunities lay overseas. Ireland completely took me away from Apartheid's reach."

In Dublin, Dhupelia enrolled in Year 12, ­before sitting the entrance exam for the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland medical school, among 1100 other would-be doctors.

"There were 25 places in Ireland at that stage for students from Third World countries and South Africa was regarded as Third World then," he says.

"I worked very hard and I got in. I was very proud that I passed that exam. I said to my dad: 'Mission accomplished, I'm in medical school'. I wanted my parents to be proud of me that I achieved the entry against the odds of my upbringing."

He received 43 pounds a month from his father to pay for his rent, food, ­transport, university fees and medical books.

Australian Medical Association Queensland president Dr Dilip Dhupelia graduating as a doctor in Dublin, Ireland
Australian Medical Association Queensland president Dr Dilip Dhupelia graduating as a doctor in Dublin, Ireland

A MOMENTOUS MEETING

Dhupelia always intended to return to live and work as a doctor in South Africa, despite the Apartheid regime and thought "that it was something that was always going to be there".

South Africa had an Indian doctor shortage at the time and Apartheid meant people of Indian descent had to be treated by non-white doctors.

But in November, 1971, his life would change ­forever when he was invited to a Sunday ­afternoon tennis party in Dublin. It was there, at 20 years of age, he would meet the love of his life, Ann Scallan, an Irish marketing student.

They wed in 1977 during his intern year at Richmond Hospital, Dublin.

Under South ­Africa's Immorality Amendment Act, their union meant he could no longer reside there.

"It was not a case of not wanting to go back, I couldn't go back," Dhupelia explains.

"The law in South Africa did not allow mixed marriages. A white guy couldn't marry a black girl, a black guy couldn't marry a white girl.

"The Immorality Act would not allow a non-white and a white person to live in South Africa as husband and wife. We had to choose different pastures, a different land."

They went to great lengths just to visit South Africa so Ann could get to know his family. "We had to put different addresses on our ­disembarkation forms," Dhupelia says.

"I had a South African passport so I joined the South ­African queue. She had an Irish passport so she joined the foreign passport queue. We couldn't be seen to be living together. But I wanted to show her my upbringing."

After Dhupelia's intern year, with jobs for junior doctors limited in Ireland, and preference given to Irish graduates, he had no choice but to move countries again.

Although Canada was his and Ann's preference at the time, and he was ­offered a job in Newfoundland - a large island off Canada's east coast - he baulked after ­looking up the Encyclopaedia Britannica and reading, "You've got to shovel snow for nine months of the year".

"I don't like the cold, even though I lived in Ireland for all those years," he says. "I can't imagine staying in a cold country with snow."

They turned their sights instead to Brisbane after corresponding with some of ­Dhupelia's friends from medical school, who had done their internships at the Royal Brisbane Hospital.

"They told me to come here because this is the 'lucky country'," he says.

When he was offered a registrar's position in Toowoomba, about 130km west of Brisbane on the Darling Downs, he rang the medical ­recruiter in the Queensland Agent-General's office in London and said: 'You know I wanted to go to Brisbane. How long do I have to stay in Toowoomba?'

"(The recruiter) replied: 'If you stay there for 12 months, I'll give you any job you want in Brisbane next year'," Dhupelia recalls.

That was in 1977. He and Ann would remain happily in Toowoomba and the surrounding ­region for almost 30 years, bringing their three children up there - Sanjay, Sunil and Nina.

Australian Medical Association Queensland president Dilip Dhupelia with wife Ann, surrounded by their family. Sanjay and Lori Dhupelia with Finn, Claudia Dhupelia on Dilip’s lap, Imogen Dhupelia on Ann’s lap, Katy Dhupelia with Harvey on her lap and Sunil Dhupelia standing behind, John Ellingsen with wife Nina and Marcie.
Australian Medical Association Queensland president Dilip Dhupelia with wife Ann, surrounded by their family. Sanjay and Lori Dhupelia with Finn, Claudia Dhupelia on Dilip’s lap, Imogen Dhupelia on Ann’s lap, Katy Dhupelia with Harvey on her lap and Sunil Dhupelia standing behind, John Ellingsen with wife Nina and Marcie.

RURAL STINT WHAT THE DOCTOR ORDERED

Two years after arriving in Toowoomba and training in obstetrics, he took a job as the ­medical superintendent at Millmerran Hospital, about 80km southwest of Toowoomba, with the right of private practice.

It was the start of a ­passion for rural medicine. Dhupelia was the town's sole doctor at the time, seeing people in a general practitioner's surgery attached to his home, as well as being on call for emergencies at the hospital.

He would also deliver babies.

After working in large hospitals with lots of medical support, he remembers wondering how he would cope, by himself, with a car crash or a heart attack without a team of doctors around him.

"I felt that when I left Millmerran, I could do anything," he says. "I did everything from ­fixing broken bones to stitching people, to treating snake bites, chronic disease, women's health, antenatal care and birthing babies."

As the only doctor in the town, Dhupelia was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with the exception of six hours on Wednesday afternoons, when he would religiously leave town and take his family to Toowoomba.

"Some of the doctors who had been in Millmerran before me said: 'Whatever you do, if you don't leave at one o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon and come back at seven o'clock in the evening, the town will take it for granted that you don't need any time off. If you ever want some free time, don't lose that privilege'," Dhupelia says.

"Basically, the town had been conditioned that there was no doctor there on a Wednesday afternoon. Otherwise, there was no relief.

"It was constant seven days a week on call."

In these days of work-life balance, three doctors service ­Millmerran - which has a population of about 1500 - and the surrounding area.

Dhupelia was naturalised while living in Millmerran.

"I was determined when I made up my mind to accept the Australian job that I would become an Australian citizen, the faster the better," he says.

"From that day, I promised myself I'd back the Australian rugby team and the Australian cricket team, even if South Africa or Ireland was playing. My wife says I ­became an Australian from day one."

He insists he has never experienced racism here.

"Every country has racist elements and I know of other people who are of South African descent who have experienced racism, but personally, I haven't," Dhupelia says.

"I love the country, love the people. From day one, I've had a complete multicultural group of friends. I've never felt unAustralian."

 

The Dhupelias returned to Toowoomba in 1983, where Dilip joined a busy surgery as a ­general practitioner-obstetrician.

"When I left Toowoomba in 2006, I was looking after four generations of the one family," he says, proudly.

"I even delivered the baby of a woman I had ­previously delivered. That's the day I started to call myself a grandfather."

He laments the move towards bigger, corporate GP practices so that many patients are no longer regularly seeing the same doctor.

"I urge parents to train their ­children to gain an affiliation with a GP, to ­develop a lifelong friendship with that GP," Dhupelia says.

"As a doctor, when someone comes in to you and you know them well, you're aware when there's something really wrong. ­

"Patients' best health outcomes are by having a relationship with a highly skilled GP. ­Governments have to fund primary care ­properly so that we can look after people holistically in the community to reduce the numbers of expensive admissions to hospital."

During those ­Toowoomba years, he frequently welcomed medical students and junior doctors into his practice.

"I always wanted to give back and ­education was important to me," he says.

PRACTITIONER TO PRESIDENT

Here he is, sitting in the president's office at the AMA Queensland's headquarters, surrounded by portraits of some of the state's most respected doctors.

On one wall is the late anaesthetist ­Professor Tess Cramond, the AMAQ's first woman president.

On another is a painting of Dr Ian Chenoweth, AMAQ president from 1975-76, and a member of the famed World War II ­Goldfish Club, made up of war veterans who survived plane crashes at sea.

Chenoweth, who spent much of his career practising in Mackay, 970km north of Brisbane, was also instrumental in the development of a taipan antivenene, working with famed snake handler Ram ­Chandra.

For years he pushed, unsuccessfully, to have Mackay's water fluoridated.

Australian Medical Association Queensland president, Dr Dilip Dhupelia. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Australian Medical Association Queensland president, Dr Dilip Dhupelia. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

Dhupelia, who has worked for Queensland Health since 2010 on service design to improve medical services in the bush, has had little time to reflect on the fact he's the AMAQ's first ­president of Indian descent.

"I never thought about that until colleagues brought that to my notice," he says.

His focus has instead been on issues of importance to AMAQ members, ­including the fight for fluoridated water supplies across the state, strengthening general practice and improving doctor wellbeing.

He will continue to push for more changes to Queensland's mandatory reporting laws, which Dhupelia says are an impediment to doctors, and other health professionals, seeking help for their own medical conditions, particularly mental health issues.

He cites figures from the Australian National Coronial Information System revealing 153 suicides of health professionals between January 1, 2011, and December 31, 2014, the highest rate among Australian white-collar workers.

"I want doctors to have the same care as any other Australian citizen," he says, passionately.

"Health workers are scared to go and get help, they're worried about their careers if they're reported. Many are junior doctors who have been bullied, harassed and they're not coping."

Dhupelia has been re-elected for a second 12-month term as AMAQ president on a platform of unfinished business.

If he could ­influence one thing in health, he says it would be improving the lives of indigenous Australians.

The issue is foremost in his mind after recent trips to the Cape York Peninsula Aboriginal communities of Aurukun, Kowanyama and Hope Vale.

"I still find it very sad in my travels the disadvantage we've got in the ­Aboriginal population," he says.

"You stand in the main street of Kowanyama, you look around and you think: Is this still Australia? If I had a magic wand that's what I would want to fix. We are all equal."