March 2nd, 2023Jon: A wonderful life in a country practice
Words: Donna Kelly | Images: Kyle Barnes and contributed
JON Barrell says he didn’t know what retirement looked like, so a few
years back he took some time off, headed to the outback with wife
Maureen and “sat under a tree” for a bit of thinking time.
The first move was to sell his share of Springs Medical Centre – that happened in
2021. And then in February this year he hung up his stethoscope after 36 years in
general practice – in Daylesford, Trentham and surrounds.
Many long-term patients, some belonging to generations he has cared for, have
wished him well saying they knew the day would come along eventually. They are
pleased for him, but sorry for themselves to lose a much loved doctor. Others, Jon
says with a wry smile, “are probably happy to see grumpy Jon go”.
Jon says he wasa sickly infant and child, which ultimately led to his medical
career, but not in the way you would think.
“I was going to be a maths teacher but with my parents in grave fear for my
health, I was home-schooled by Mum and did three years in two. That meant I
was young in year 12, just 16. I thought I would go wandering but Dad said: ‘No,
“I thought I might do marine science and get a job in Townsville, as far away
from home as possible, but I got my results and thought ‘I could be a doctor’. I wasn’t
really keen to do medicine, but I thought if I didn’t like it I could change to science.”
He did like it, and already thinking about becoming a country GP, Jon graduated
in 1980 and headed to Dandenong to do a two-year internship. “I thought a
suburban hospital would be better grounding than a tertiary centre in the city. I did
obstetrics, anaesthetics, intensive care and emergency and then went to England to do
obstetrics because there was a lot more hands-on experience.”
Jon returned to Dandenong for another year in anaesthetics – all the skill sets he
believed he needed to be a GP in the country.
With their first child Michael on the way, to be followed five years later by
Stephanie, Jon and Maureen chose Daylesford for their next chapter and moved on
Australia Day 1986 and started work with Dr Fred Eggleston and Dr Brian Coles – at
the business that would eventually morph into Springs Medical – the next Monday.
Jon says the work of a GP changed enormously over his career. “People live longer
so they have more chronic disease, and the level of intervention has significantly
increased. The treatment once for heart attack was lie in bed and wait until you
got better, now there are stents and angioplasty…the number of vaccines has vastly
“When I went to medical school there was no HIV or Hepatitis C, and of course,
Covid had never been noted. I presumed if you read the textbook you would learn all
the things you needed to know. Being a GP today is vastly more complex and detailed
but I still love the work.”
Jon said he chose to move to the country to be involved in the community. He is
a stalwart at the Hepburn Springs Golf Club where he is “indebted to the friendship
and support network for both myself and Maureen” and also did a four-year stint as a
councillor with the Hepburn Shire Council. He re-nominated, failed to get the votes,
“was sorry for about a day” and then got on with life. Maureen has banned him from
Being a part of the community means there are also a few “tricky questions”
out of hours but on the whole people are respectful of boundaries, he says. “During
Covid and all those phone consultations, no-one ever rang me inappropriately. And
doctors aren’t special. Electricians, carpenters, all manner of people in the service
industries do the same thing. People have emergency needs and I say it is not a
bother, it is part of living in the country.”
Patients Googling symptoms before they see him doesn’t both Jon either. “People
have always done that. When I was a child, families would save up for a set of World
Book encyclopaedias to look up things, or Ma Evans’ herbal textbook. My job is to
nut things out and give advice. What’s going on here, what are the serious red flags,
what is the most appropriate path – and then arrive at a diagnosis.”
Like everyone, but perhaps more than the general public, Jon has been navigating
Covid for the past three years and says it has “been horrible”. “For the nation, for
the people, for the health professionals, for every other industry, it has been horrible.
There are just so many different components, the fear of getting Covid, vaccine issues,
the mandate issues, hand hygiene and PPE. The logistics of going into a healthcare
facility – everything takes longer.
“Working in full PPE is awful. It has changed general practice remarkably but full
credit to the government of the day and to general practices and the health industry, I
think we were all surprised at how nimble the government and general practices were
to find different ways to do things like iso pods and telephone consultations.
“But sitting in your spare bedroom at home with your feet in the cupboard,
facing the wall with your laptop and mobile phone and wobbly internet and wifi
connections, and wondering how you are going to print and scan and post – the
novelty wore off after about two days.
“Thankfully I think we are on the far side of things but the notion that health
professionals will wear a mask for the rest of our days is challenging to me. Let’s hope
that doesn’t happen.”
So, after those days under the trees, what does retirement look like after 36 years?
It turns out Jon has not quite given up the stethoscope.
Jon says he will get some travelling in, mostly around Australia this year, but also
take on some locum work as both a GP and in emergency medicine. He already has
his first post lined up at Alexandra and will be back at Springs for Good Friday.
“I still feel like I have another 10 years of work in me and finally I will get to
choose when and where. I think after 36 years I have earned that right.”
And also after 36 years of a “sometimes difficult and very demanding life”, Jon
thanks Maureen, Michael and Stephanie for their support.
“I could not have done what I have done without their support. The life of
a country GP can be very demanding on the family. Maureen was a mothercraft
nurse before we married, she has always loved children, and it was her choice to be a
stay-at-home mum at our place at Coomoora. And we know we were very fortunate
to be able to do that. Horses were always her interest and she has passed that on to
Stephanie. And Michael always played golf with me. It’s been a wonderful life.”