Introducing Professor Gordian Fulde – Senior Australian of the Year and the longest-serving director of emergency in Australia, writes Pamela Connellan.
When you’re looking at dedication to your work, Professor Gordian Fulde sets the bar extremely high. This man is the longest-serving Emergency Department director in our country.
Gordian has manned the often chilling – and always challenging – nightshift at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital for 30 straight years.
It must take guts to be the Director of Emergency Medicine at any hospital, but to be the person in charge at this particular hospital – right on the doorstep of Sydney’s drug and alcohol-fuelled night life – well, that’s taking dedication to a whole new level.
For those who live on the wild side by experimenting with deadly new drugs, binge-drinking or straight-up wild partying, St Vincent’s is their ‘go to’ hospital. This area of Sydney can be a challenge to drive through at night, let alone be the person who says, ‘yes, we can help you’ when terrible accidents occur, including cowardly drunken punches.
So it goes without saying, Professor Fulde is blessed with more than his fair share of guts and persistence. To do what he does every day, he must be an unusually resourceful and dedicated man. In fact, let’s be frank – the man could well be a saint.
SENIOR AUSTRALIAN OF THE YEAR
We asked Gordian how it felt to win the title of Senior Australian of the Year earlier in 2016 and his answer was, as usual, a clear indication of the calibre of the man.
“Obviously, I represent a whole lot of things. It’s not just Gordian Fulde who won that award – it’s the whole tapestry of health care workers behind me who won,” he says.
He adds that he’s immensely grateful for the award, which came as a big surprise. “Even being nominated and being a finalist was like a bolt out of the blue. It was like ‘kapow!’ – I just never saw it coming.
“I nearly went to bits in the thank you speech because it was so unexpected. All the other finalists were so fabulous and really – there must be millions of people out there who deserve it,” he adds.
Since winning the award, Gordian said he’s felt an “overwhelming” amount of “good will” from a huge variety of people. “From so many of my colleagues right through to the average person on the street, it’s been amazing.”
30 YEARS IN THE JOB
With three decades on the job up his sleeve, this dedicated 67-year-old says he’s looking forward to his retirement and plans to semi-retire in about three years.
“I’ll be phasing down, very much so,” he says. “I think it’s a mistake if you’ve been a very busy person – and I plead guilty. You may not have spent enough time on your own interests and with your family.
SUPPORTING THE LOCK-OUT LAWS
During his time in the position of emergency medicine director, Gordian has often been asked by the media about his experiences. In turn, he’s spoken out in support of Sydney’s lock-out laws which were implemented in Sydney’s CBD entertainment precinct in 2014.
Gordian says he’s seen a marked change since these lock-out laws were implemented. He prefers to refer to them as “changed regulations” and he argues, they don’t stop people from drinking, but they do stop people from drinking to excess “… in late night bars and then stumbling out onto the streets”.
When asked if he’s pleased with the reported decrease in very serious injuries late at night in Sydney’s CBD, he answers: “Yes, it’s very satisfying because since the ‘changed regulations’ have been in, we’ve seen a change on the midnight to dawn shift. We don’t see the totally drunken, violent injuries that we were seeing. We still get the black eyes and those who’ve drunk too much, but the footpaths are just so much safer.”
YOU KNOW YOU’RE NOT GOING TO WIN EVERY TIME
But he does admit there’s a stressful side to his work. “I can’t tell you how horrible it is when we get a call on the ‘bat phone’ and it turns out they’re bringing in a teenager or a young person with critical brain injuries. You take one look at them and you know their brain is never going to work the same again.”
Gordian says it has always distressed him when he sees these alcohol-fuelled injuries which could so easily be avoided – plus the fact they cost a lot as a society. “A very bad head injury costs $12 million to our health system. It could be so much better spent on other parts of our health system,” he adds. “We see it big time. Life is such that bad things happen. When you see things happen that are totally preventable – when young people get into really bad trouble – that hurts.
“Anybody who works in emergency knows when they are dealing with life and death – you’re not going to win every time. When older people come in and they die, that’s not good. When younger people come in and they are in trouble, it’s horrific,” he adds.
Because he feels so strongly about how we can change our society for the better, Gordian has used his knowledge and experience to help out in other ways.
He says he does this not just because he can, but because he feels he should. While he will always say he doesn’t “do politics” because it would be “counter-productive,” he will often talk to groups of people about the negative effects of alcohol or drug abuse.
Gordian was involved on the night in July 2012 when young Thomas Kelly came in, after he was hit in an unprovoked and cowardly attack.
Thomas underwent emergency surgery immediately with the full St Vincent’s medical team but sadly, two days later, his life support had to be switched off.
Gordian is now a Board Member for the Thomas Kelly Youth Foundation. Gordian says Thomas’s father, Ralph, asked him and so “… of course I said ‘yes’”.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
When he’s not at work, Gordian enjoys his home life. His wife is a doctor who he met when she was a medical student. He says he always had a rule not to socialise with the medical students but this was the one time he “thankfully” made an exception.
But when you factor in that both Gordian’s parents were doctors and now his two daughters are doctors, and you might think there would have to be some lively ‘shop talk’ around the dinner table at night! But Gordian says they just don’t do it.
“You’ve got to have interests and other passions apart from work,” he laughs. His daughters are 28 and 30. “One’s doing anaesthetic training and the other is finishing a specialist degree in emergency medicine.”
When asked if he’s keen for the daughter doing emergency medicine to follow in his footsteps he’s quick to add. “I wouldn’t recommend to anyone to be a director of an Emergency Department. It’s very hard to be a doctor and be a director. There’s an increasing amount of bureaucracy and red tape. Quite honestly, that’s not what most people are doing a doctor’s degree for…”
WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO UNWIND?
We asked Gordian how he handles the stress of his work. “It’s like everything – if you enjoy what you’re doing, the stress from work is nearly good for you. It’s the stress of caring for people. It’s there, but it doesn’t wear you down.”
But he adds: “You do have to have a way to unwind…”
“My work is very rewarding but it’s taxing – everyone has to have time out. Some days, my work is devastating so you have to get rid of the stress somehow. You’ve got to work through it. You need to talk through it with your colleagues. You have to talk about it because you almost certainly did as good a job as you possibly could, but it is very upsetting when tragedy strikes. But you do have to get through it…”
He says that despite his love affair with his work, he recognises he must take time out so he can rejuvenate himself and recharge his batteries.
“I’ve had an incredibly lucky life – my family, my work have all been fantastic. I love nature – I have a place down on the far south coast which I haven’t been to much over the last few years and I’m looking forward to spending some time there, because it’s so relaxing.
“My wife has me addicted to the Kindle – I can read a few books at the same time which is great,” he laughs.
“I have two dogs and they are very important to me. Ruby is mine – she’s a bitzer rescue dog from Port Macquarie and she’s the first dog I’ve had who is totally devoted to me. Mischa is my wife’s dog and she’s a Russian Terrier,” he adds.
THE HUMAN TOUCH
The doctor says he thinks one of the most important things we all need is human contact. “One of the things we lack in society is the human contact. We have so many digital things these days but there’s no corner shop any more. You go to the supermarket and you don’t talk to anyone. I think that is very detrimental to the way we, as humans, function. We need human contact. If you don’t have that we’re going to end up depressed.”
“There’s a lot of social isolation for older people and for dementia, this can be an enormous problem. I don’t know that we’re really on top of that consciously. The number of people who don’t notice they’ve got dementia is quite high,” he adds.
EVERYONE’S LIVING LONGER
Gordian points out that the whole dynamics of ageing in Australia have changed a great deal over the last few years. “People used to die when they were in their 70s. Now the actuarial figures are at an average of 88 to 89 for females and a couple of years earlier for males. We see people coming in now in their 90s all the time. We are caring for lots of older people all the time now,” he adds.
“As a young doctor, we had to go around and visit nursing homes and many people find facing the reality of a nursing home placement really hard. They fear for the loss of their freedom and independence. I’ve seen it happen a fair bit and that’s something we broach with people. Everybody who has elderly parents knows what I’m talking about,” he says.
Gordian advises people need to look on their retirement as a “sea change” and plan it and do it when they’re still active so they can “…enjoy their retirement in reasonable health – not wait until all the wheels have dropped off”.
“The good thing is, older people have a better idea of what they like and what they don’t like. Retirement is like a “ski” (Spend the Kids Inheritance) holiday – why stay in a big house when you can become a grey nomad?” he laughs.
I think you’ve got to be proactive with other interests. People who work very hard need to start building up other interests to make their retirement work.