My brilliant career (with apologies to Miles Franklin)
Assoc. Prof. Lybus Hillman MBBS FRACP MD* |

*Clinical Associate Professor, The Canberra Hospital Gastrotract Medical Practice

I always wanted to be a doctor. I have no idea why. No one in my family had ever been in a profession, no one had gone to university. I grew up in a tiny town in southwest Western Australia (Figure 1) and I think I was impressed by the local general practitioner’s kindness to a tiny tot. The first anatomy text I ever studied was when I was four and visiting a family friend in Adelaide (this family friend went on to have a great career as a surgeon). But I was definitely hooked by then.

University in WA in the late sixties and early seventies was a dream. We were only 60 students. We all knew the faculty extremely well. We learnt anatomy using a cadaver. After the rite of passage of first year, we knew we would all get through as long as we turned up to everything, studied hard and didn’t do anything stupid. I took a year ”off” between pre-clinical and clinical to do research on motor programming in Physiology for a Bachelor of Medical Science, which  proved that I loved clinical research but was not an original thinker. It was also a fruitful year as I met my future husband!

As soon as I entered the clinical years I knew that I had made the right choice. I just loved clinical medicine (and still do). Of course it was helped by what we could do back then: suturing all the inebriates’ wounds in Accident and Emergency Friday nights (much more fun than going out!); delivering 25 babies in fifth year including, without gloves, one syphilitic child; running a peripheral hospital’s coronary care unit as a sixth year student after the registrar had done a short morning ward round and then acting as night resident for the entire hospital! These days I would be struck off by the Tribunal.

Reality struck post-graduation. I had stupidly married an Australian diplomat who was immediately posted to Germany. Whilst relishing living in a European country and learning to really speak German, proving that I was capable of being an intern in a German hospital wasn’t easy. After two months of intensive language training I was taken on in an unofficial capacity by the local community hospital. My training was up to the task but my language wasn’t. After crying every night for a year, I was finally able to communicate at a level that resulted in the hospital offering me an official position. The Australian government had other ideas. They did not approve of working diplomatic spouses and wouldn’t let me take a formal position. It took another year of fighting with the government and still not earning any money, despite working full time including nights, before I was allowed to be officially employed. My proudest moment was when I filled out a German tax return!

Upon returning to Canberra, my experience in Germany paid off. I was able to immediately join the Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (FRACP) training program which back then was basically run by previously successful registrars. They were determined that we would pass, and pass we did having been grilled by them constantly for two years. I was totally bewitched by gastroenterology (in what other specialty can one have so much fun playing with so many toys?) but the head of department thought that it was an inappropriate career for a woman. I was told “girls don’t do gastro”! One of his peers sorted that out.

Back then it was really important to have a higher degree if you were serious about your specialty. I was lucky as my husband was posted to New Zealand next so I was able to finish my fellowship and carry out research for a MD in a very supportive academic unit in Wellington. Once again I realised that clinical research was enormous fun!

All good things come to an end and suddenly my MD was handed in and I had to decide about my future career. I had always envisaged an academic career but at that time in Canberra it was simply not feasible. Out of nowhere I was offered a brilliant opportunity: to be an associate in a new multidisciplinary private specialist centre which had just opened in Civic. It was perfect and has remained so to this day, evolving over time to a gastroenterological practice near the Woden Valley Hospital as it was then known. One of the joys of this practice has been the ability to carry out clinical research on Barrett’s oesophagus by utilising excellent clinical records and a simple data base. I have been able to have an academic career in a private practice proving that good clinical research can be carried on outside major institutions.

Having sorted out my career options, it was time for children. Naturally my hormones refused to comply. Many tests and hormonal manipulations later, my first daughter was born, to be followed by a son and another daughter. My endocrinologist said despairingly, “Lybbie, having turned you on, how do we turn you off?” By this time I was near terminal exhaustion trying to be a clinical gastroenterologist and a mother of three even with the help of a supportive husband and an indispensable nanny. Enough was enough – no more children. Time to settle.

I haven’t mentioned the farm. But that is another story...