Author: Amanda Lyons
Dr Wence Vahala continues a family legacy of dedication to general practice.
Western Australian GP Dr Wence Vahala belongs to a family with a strong tradition in medicine in Perth, with his father having practised as a GP in the suburb of Bayswater from the 1950s.
Prior to Bayswater, however, the Vahala legacy began in Europe. The family fled political turmoil in what was then Czechoslovakia in the middle of the 20th century, driving across the border to live as refugees in Germany for a year before being accepted into the UK. On their arrival, Dr Vahala Sr had to undergo a rigorous process in order to be recognised as a doctor in his new country.
‘Dad had to study fourth-, fifth- and sixth-year exams, but not at university – he did it from home with books,’ Dr Vahala told Good Practice. ‘Then he had to sit the exams before he could be recognised as a doctor, and after that he worked for a couple of years in hospitals in the UK.
‘One of the registrars he worked with in Guildford, near London, was an Australian surgeon and he recommended Dad be a GP in Perth.
‘So that’s how we got to Perth and to Bayswater. That was 1956, so I was not yet 13 years old when we got here.’
It wasn’t long after the family’s arrival in Australia that Dr Vahala began his own medical training, starting his degree at the University of Western Australia at the age of 16.
‘In the transition from school in the UK to Australia, Mum was keen for me to be stretched academically,’ he said.
Following graduation at the age of 22, Dr Vahala entered hospital training as a registrar at Fremantle Hospital, but left halfway through his second year to assist his father at his single-GP practice in Bayswater.
‘Dad was getting fatigued and it wasn’t easy to get locums or partners in those days,’ Dr Vahala said.
Dr Vahala found that once he began working in general practice, he didn’t want to leave, and he credits his father for his subsequent career as a GP.
‘Dad somehow made me feel as if I knew a lot when I didn’t, and he was able to teach me in a way where I didn’t feel like I was being lectured to,’ he said. ‘It’s a skill that I guess not many dads have with their kids: to look on them as professional equals – even though I wasn’t an equal and didn’t have his sort of experience – and make them feel valued.
‘Otherwise, I’m sure I would have gone back to hospital and probably been a physician.’
The Vahalas also found they were important to patients from the local Czech community, who maintained loyalty to their care, in some cases for generations.
‘We had a fairly large Czech population in the practice. I could speak Czech and Dad could speak Czech better than he could speak English,’ Dr Vahala said. ‘When I retired [from full-time practice] I had a patient who was 80-odd years old who used to drive [300 km] from Three Springs to see us, and bring his 45-year-old daughter. And they were Dad’s patients before they were mine.’
The semi-retired Dr Vahala is now able to reflect on a general practice career of nearly 50 years, but that doesn’t mean he is resting on his laurels. In fact, he has maintained a busy schedule into his 70s.
After 46 years in practice, Dr Vahala went to work for Western Australia General Practice Education and Training (WAGPET) just over two years ago.
‘What really appeals to me in general practice education is small-group learning, where you get problem-based learning situations and work with registrars in coming to solutions and working out how to do things,’ he said.
As much as he enjoyed this type of education, Dr Vahala found that he missed face-to-face interaction with patients. After two years with WAGPET, he returned to general practice work with a variety of organisations.
‘I work for Street Doctor a couple of days a week, where I look after homeless and Aboriginal [patients],’ he said.
‘One day [a week] … I look after people with mental health issues for their comorbidities. And I do some GP after-hours work at Midland Royal Perth [Hospital], which works out to about one day a week.’
Dr Vahala has also continued to work with WAGPET on a part-time basis, carrying out workshops and external clinical teacher visits. He also assists the RACGP with exams and the selection of new registrars.
The common thread through all of Dr Vahala’s work is a continuing love of his chosen profession.
‘I think general practice is the best job. I still enjoy getting up for work the three to four days a week, and I really value that,’ he said.
Dr Vahala has seen a great deal of change in general practice over the course of his career. While he finds that the advent of larger practices and relatively shorter working hours can mean less face-to-face interaction with patients, Dr Vahala does appreciate the subsequent improvement to work–life balance this provides GPs.
‘It’s a far better lifestyle now in terms of your home and private life than it was,’ he said.
But whether he is reflecting on his past or enthusing about his current work in general practice, it is the profession’s connection to people that makes Dr Vahala grateful for his career choice.
‘What I love about [general practice] is that you’ve got continuity of care,’ he said. ‘You see patients, you deliver babies, then you end up looking after the babies you delivered during their pregnancies.
‘That concept, where you look after people for up to 46 years, can’t be experienced anywhere else.’