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Spotlight on Success – Military Psychiatry

I am fortunate to work with some absolute heroes in Australian health and one of my 2019 goals is to share success stories from the coalface with you.

My spotlight this week is on Dr Grahame Pohlen, (Psychiatrist) and his wonderful wife ‘Sister Marie’. I have worked with this most amazing couple for over 10 years and they have just retired. I could not let this occasion pass without a shout out of appreciation to them for their extraordinary contribution to the mental health of Australians.

Kiwis by birth (NZ royalty from all the stories Sister Marie told me) but they worked in Australia most of their long careers.

Dr Pohlen graduated as a psychiatrist in 1966, was a celebrated athlete (representing New Zealand in rugby and basketball), army doctor, author and historian.

‘Sister Marie’ as she would introduce herself, was a nurse in the army and has worked with her husband in psychiatry for over 40 years. Marie would always tell me the most amazing stories, from her time in the war, their time in England and from when she was the ‘Matron’ running the nursing training in the Eastern suburbs of Sydney in the 1970’s.

Dr Pohlen’s patients were all war veterans or armed services personnel. In my 10 years of Practice Management consulting for the Pohlens I never knew him to privately bill any patient and over the last 7 years they only took on a handful of new patients and only then if they were also in great need, in the military and relatives of existing patients.

It appeared nearly all their patients suffered from PTSD and some travelled from across Australia for their appointments with Dr Pohlen. Entry to the practice was via an unmarked door overlooking the trains and harbour at Circular Quay. One patient at a time would arrive and ring the bell. Many patients were not able to cope indoors so Dr Pohlen would often leave the practice with them and walk around the Botanical Gardens for the consultation.

Online patient feedback comments include:

“He instilled in me a belief that I would rehabilitate and I did.”
and “His knowledge and support enabled me to re-establish my life and return to work again.”

 

While my relationship with the practice was one of introducing a computer system (improving payment from 6 weeks to 24 hours) and general practice improvements over the years, the conversations were never about money (although the challenges of Veterans Affairs billing was certainly a topic at times).

Sad stories permeated every visit as I heard how many of their patients they had lost to suicide, drug or alcohol addiction. Sister Marie would look out the window and see all the homeless people living underneath Circular Quay train line and comment how many were war veterans. 

They openly discussed that the goal at every visit was keeping patients from self-harm. There were constant calls from distressed carers ie family members and Sister Marie spent much time answering calls from hospitals and trying to co-ordinate government or other services for her patients. The emotional support provided by Sister Marie to patients’ families also cannot be understated.

So passionate about helping war veterans, Dr Pohlen undertook a law degree seemingly purely for the purpose of being able to help fight for his veteran clients in court. This doctor is a true legend. His old All-Black jerseys were on display in the waiting room as were relics from his own army days (one of only two doctor’s offices I’ve ever seen displaying a weapon) no doubt in a further show of solidarity with his patients.

Retirement back home to NZ was the dream and it was long overdue, but the Pohlens could not retire until they found another Psychiatrist to take over the care of their patients (we had many conversations about cross-continent challenges of telehealth). Finding a Psychiatrist willing to exclusively bulk-bill let alone one able to relate to and help long-term veteran clients was a huge challenge.

I wish I could do something to thank the Pohlens for their service to Australia other than post on social media (which I know they will never read). They inspire me every day, most certainly every time the conversation in health turns to money or ‘patient-centred care’ I think of these incredible, selfless health practitioners. We were lucky to have them for so long in Australia and in my opinion, they are heroes.

 

I now picture the Pohlens overlooking beautiful New Zealand scenery writing the most fascinating memoirs and enjoying retirement. I sure hope so.

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