A street in Wallaroo, a port town in South Australia.

Husband and wife team has cared for residents in rural Australia for three decades.

 

Dr Daniel James and Dr Mei Wee met at NUS Medicine in the 1970s when they were young undergraduates and active in the Varsity Christian Fellowship. They have come a long way since. Literally.

 

After graduating from medical school in 1977 and getting married in 1979, the couple and their two daughters Davina and Deborah emigrated to Australia in 1988.

 

For four years, Dr James worked as an emergency resident medical officer, Obstetric and Surgical registrar, at a hospital in a frontier mining town in the Australian outback at Broken Hill, New South Wales, while Dr Wee joined a family clinic there.

 

In 1993, they moved to Port Augusta, a small city in South Australia. There, Dr James joined the Pika Wiya Aboriginal Health Service, serving hospitals on call, and frequently travelling to the remote clinics of other towns overnight by car to treat patients in need. Meanwhile, Dr Wee worked at the Port Augusta Medical Centre, and travelled to and from Adelaide to take her young daughters to school.


It was while both doctors were in Port Augusta that their next opportunity came knocking at their door in early 1997.


A general practitioner whose child went to the same school as the James’ daughter, asked if they would like to take over his practice at Wallaroo, a port town in South Australia. He invited them to visit and showed them the town, hospitals and nursing homes. A few weeks later, husband and wife accepted the offer and have been there ever since.


For two decades, the doctors have served the Wallaroo community of 3,000 people at their Owen Terrace Medical Practice, attending to a wide range of conditions. The community is mainly Australian, though more Asians have migrated there in recent years.


“We see a lot of patients with chronic illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension. We also treat a lot of children – (handling) anything from childhood infection, asthma,teething or growth problems, to even otolaryngology issues. We do see the elderly too. We don’t refer (our patients) to specialists that quickly, so we have to learn to do a few things ourselves, things like shared care, obstetrics and simple incisions,” said Dr James.


“It’s more all-rounded in country practices than in the city,” added Dr Wee. She explained that in Australia, most people will visit a general practitioner first, before getting referred to a specialist if the doctor deems necessary.


Dr Daniel James and Dr Mei Wee at their clinic.

When referrals are needed, Dr James connects his patients to specialists, like orthopaedic surgeons, plastic surgeons, otolaryngologists, obstetricians and gynaecologists. These visit Wallaroo once or twice a month to treat patients.

 

Since arriving in Wallaroo in 1997, Dr James and Dr Wee have grown the practice, which now has a total of six doctors and three nurses. They also host medical students who are there on clinical attachments. “I remember one of my lecturers at medical school said you should not only heal and learn but also teach, so I share my knowledge,” Dr James said.

 

The NUS Medicine alumnus works six days a week, including public holidays. He sees about 30 to 40 patients a day, with consultations lasting between 10 and 15 minutes. Once a week he visits nursing homes and does house calls when called.

 

Dr Wee works thrice a week, and spends the other days in Adelaide helping their two daughters to babysit four grandchildren, who are between the ages of two and four. “We see our patients from the cradle to the grave,” said Dr James. “In the city, conditions like terminal illness are seen by specialists, oncologists or palliative care experts, but in the country we need to manage all these things. We see our patients in their homes, or in the nursing homes. We take care of their end stage. It’s very rewarding.”

 

Being the longest serving doctors in Wallaroo, Dr James and Dr Wee have taken care of entire families, and generations, and have formed close friendships with their patients.


 “I think we’ve grown old with our patients and others have grown up with us,” Dr Wee said.

 

"Daniel looks forward to seeing people, not just as patients,but as friends. We’ve been there for 20 years, and we know a lot of them personally. His patients come to see him, share a joke, and then they are well and off they go,” she added.

 

However, the husband and wife pair say they find the practice of medicine increasingly challenging today.

 

"Medicine has changed a lot. When we first started, I mainly did anaesthesia, but I felt that it was more rewarding and less worrying then, because there is a lot of legality attached to it now. You have the idea of being sued at the back of your mind, though in the past when we practised medicine 40 years ago, people were grateful to see a doctor. But I am quite certain it is going the same way throughout the world. We change as the system changes,” Dr Wee added.

 

We live in a litigious society now,” Dr James noted.


Still, both continue to do their best for their patients, and they constantly upskill their medical and technological knowledge whenever medical experts and specialists visit Wallaroo.

 

Aside from medical work, Dr James has spent three weeks every year since 2010 visiting Armenia with the Armenian Christian Mission to provide medical advice and follow up on support for poor families in that country. In 2016, he also visited the Republic of Moldova with the Christian Missions International, and he is on the board of both missions.

 

For his contributions to the community, which also include being a founding member of the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine as well as lay preacher for the Uniting Church in the Ardrossan / Goyder parish, Dr James was awarded the District Council of the Copper Coast Australia Day 2016 Citizen of the Year award. While some of their peers in Singapore have retired, the couple is not ready to call it a day.

 

“We need to make sure the right people take over (our practice). It is very tempting to want to give everything up and go, but we want to make sure it is a smooth transition, with continuity of care, so that nobody is penalised,” said Dr James.