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The people’s doctor whose work is never finished

By John Lewis

Dr John Mackellar has been at the sharp end of needles in more ways than one for nearly half a century, so it's no wonder he likes to sink into a soft, comfortable chair at the end of the day.

“I like my sitting room when the telly's turned off. But I usually sit down when the telly's on and then fall asleep. The sort of stupid behaviour that only happens to old people,” he says with a slow grin.

At 79, Dr Mackellar divides his working day as a general practitioner between his clinics at Kialla's Riverside Plaza and Mooroopna's McLennan St.

From there he deals with people wrestling drug and alcohol addiction, doles out prescriptions for methadone, referrals for child abuse, and life advice for those battling all of the above. All the while he battles a medical system he says produces inadequately trained doctors and an education system he sees as unaware or unable to deal with the people on his list.

This is street-level medicine. Not for John Mackellar the lofty heights of a specialist's suite in a Melbourne bluestone clinic.

“Doctors learn about exotic diseases like cancer of the thyroid — I've seen one in my life. They should be learning about child abuse, the mental health of children, drug abuse,” he says.

Dr Mackellar was a wartime baby born to a GP father practising in Canberra.

In a telling anecdote, it appears his father set a good example of bucking the system to the young Mackellar.

“He liked flying aeroplanes and he wanted to join the air force but they wouldn't let him. So he got hold of a Tiger Moth he was flying around in in Canberra and he dive-bombed parliament house,” he says with just a glimmer of what looks like pride.

He speaks with the passion and certainty of someone who has been toiling at the coalface of medicine all his working life. And, after 50 years, he can see no end to the line of damaged people waiting outside his clinic door.

Dr John Mackellar has been at the coalface of medicine for more than 50 years.
Picture: Christina Prochazka

His eyes were opened to the disastrous effects of child abuse during time spent studying pediatrics in the United Kingdom after his medical degree at Melbourne University.

“I couldn't stand it — all we saw were kids being abused, and it's the same thing now as far as I can tell,” he says, shaking his head.

He has now reached an age where he is unafraid to throw a few hand grenades at a system he believes is failing our future generations.

“General practice is a great thing to get into, but not if you're ignorant. Fifteen per cent of the Australian population is sexually abused before puberty. That's what it's about. Now do you get that in University of Melbourne teaching? No.

“It's a huge issue because it causes mental illness. You get to the age of eight, 10, 12 and you start looking for something to make you feel better. So you take grog, you take cannabis, you take this and that. Then doctors think you're drug dependent. Doctors at the University of Melbourne have no training in these things,” he says.

He says by the time these young people get to school they're branded as failures and are either kicked out or they leave at Year 10.

Behind it all, lies the shadow of child abuse.

“We hear about the drug scourge in our community, but the drug scourge is nearly always the consequence of child abuse,” he says.

Dr Mackellar is one of only two Shepparton district GPs who prescribe the opioid methadone to treat opioid dependence.

“I don't have any colleagues that do the work I do, which I feel very disappointed about — and I'm nearly 80,” he says.

At times, there seems no limit to Dr Mackellar's exasperation.

But when he talks about science, his mood lifts.

“Now we know there are some genes which determine your ability to study and learn. These genes are switched off by abuse — so these kids just can't learn. But at the Murdoch Institute they are looking at ways of switching these genes back on again. So the future is good. I think — I hope — this new technology will save a lot of these kids,” he says.

When he's not at his clinic Dr Mackellar spends time reading, taking photographs in the bush, or, much to his annoyance, falling asleep in front of the television.

He and his wife Gill have four children, all engaged in successful careers in law, nursing and IT.

At 79 he can't see himself retiring any time soon.

“I enjoy my work; it's work that I don't think anyone else is doing in the area, nobody else wants to do methadone and you talk to anybody at the university about these things and they don't want to know. Doctors’ curriculums are full of lectures on kidney disease — but nobody talks about child abuse,” he says.

In a rare moment of personal reflection, the Mackellar door cracks open and he reveals how he copes with such a human tide of damage and frustration.

“I'm very fortunate to have a wonderful wife — Gill — who looks after me so well. She and I have similar interests which keeps us going on a sort pugilistic basis,” he says with another glint in his eye. This time it's mischief.