>> Thursday, March 31, 2011
“We have good days and bad days. We are now having more good days than we were, but the bad days are still fairly bad.
"We often have chats at 1 am about where is life leading us, and what we are going to do.”
When I interviewed Charlton GP Dr Stephen Webb five weeks after his house and business premises were inundated in Victoria's January floods, it was clear that although the water had long receded, the impact would be felt for years to come.
For much of the first quarter of 2011, the media ran story after story about natural disasters – Victoria’s and Queensland’s floods, Cyclone Yasi, the Christchurch quake and, most recently, Japan’s quake and tsunami and nuclear disaster.
But as the imminent danger passed and the clean-up after each disaster began, the media reports thinned out and the news topics of the day returned to celebrity gossip, politics and interest rates.
But life hasn't returned to normal for the victims of these events - and it won't for weeks, months or years to come.
Take another Victorian GP, Dr Lachlan Fraser, whose house and practice were destroyed in the Black Saturday fires in 2009.
I spoke to him only a few weeks ago as well and he is still waiting for his new surgery to be built. He has come a long way in two years – finding new love, returning to work, making future career plans – but he admits he is still not over it.
“When you have been in the heat of disaster, and you are in danger of losing your life, I don’t think you ever get over that.”
Dr Stephen Webb suspects he, too, has a very long road ahead of him, especially as he and many of his neighbours learned this week that their insurers will not cover them for what they refer to as 'riverine flood'.
As the townsfolk of Charlton met to consider their options last night, Dr Webb admitted he was preparing himself for the possibility of joining a class action.
He told me his story for an article commissioned by Medical Observer earlier this month. Here is an extract from that interview.
My practice was co-located with the hospital and aged care facility in Charlton. We had a very nice refurbished building – and then it went 50cm to 60cm under water.
Our house was flooded too.
We were in Melbourne at the time. We went out on Saturday night to celebrate my 50th birthday, knowing our house was nine inches under water… we just pretended it wasn’t happening.
Friends went to our house to lift things off the floor, but they couldn’t do much as the light fell and the water rose, so after 30 minutes they left.
We lost metres of bookshelves, filing cabinet drawers, ancestral photos, family tree information, chests with photos from the Middle East, university days, celluloid negatives, antique Asian textiles.
It is quicker to say what we have left rather than what was destroyed.
We got back here Monday afternoon to see the devastation and, thereafter, we had friends who came up and tore our house apart, basically.
We are now, weeks down the track, painstakingly trying to reassemble the house after it was brutally disassembled. We are living in a building site with some damaged furniture.
There are no floorcoverings, the walls are cracked and the paint is peeling, the skirting is half gone, the floors are all bare floorboards or marine chipboard, and we have mould growing. We have this coloured, mouldy fungal farm. Not the kind of pets I want.
It impacts on your emotional stability.
The reality is that if you take valued things away from somebody, whether they are possessions or people or functionality, you grieve. Firstly there is denial; you can’t absorb it. Then comes the anger phase.
It all impacts on your emotional stability. You get sleep disturbance, you lose your appetite, you get short-tempered and it just mucks around with your head a bit.
My own GP recommended moving my nine-year-old daughter into our bedroom so she can actually go to sleep. At the moment, she habitually awakes through the night, or doesn’t even get to sleep until midnight.
Whether that is entirely flood-related and stress-derived at the consequence of seeing the house dismantled around you and losing your favourite toys, I don’t know.
We’re averaging four or five hours sleep a night. We are all short-tempered and cranky and that doesn’t improve the mood in the house.
We don't feel like socialising on a bad day.
We don’t feel like going out or talking to anyone on a bad day. We just don’t feel ready for coping with things. I am sure there are lots of people in the same boat as us and they are limping along the same way.
I have been staying away from work because I didn’t think I would be a lot of use to anybody as a GP listening to patients' problems. I am wrapped up in trying to solve my own problems, which I would hope sounds reasonable.
The perception that doctors are immune from the psychological impact of events like this is a terrible misconception and I think we need to recognise ourselves that we are only human and are therefore subject to human frailties.
But portacabins are being arranged as a temporary general practice location, and we are likely to be in them for three years. Do I want to be? No. Am I resigned to the fact that we probably will be? Yes.
The positive side is that I would like to think it will make me a much more empathic doctor, because the truth is until we have been through something like this we don’t know, we just don’t.
There is no doubt that as a consequence of my own experience it will improve my ability as a doctor when I return to work because instead of just sympathising with people, I will be able to truly empathise with them.
That has got to be a good thing at some point in my professional career.
For more information about Pamela Wilson or WriteSmart, log on to http://www.writesmart.com.au/