Diary of a GP: Remembering Stella

4 minute read

General practice puts us in the orbit of some quietly extraordinary people.


Without doubt they are the best thing about general practice. They can of course also be the worst, but this week I have been in an especially grateful state of mind.

The reason has been, as it so often is, a particular patient. A particularly wonderful patient.

I got word yesterday that my very dear 81-year-old Stella had died peacefully at the nearby palliative care unit. She had had progressively worsening COPD – which she blamed on growing up in a sooty UK mining town – and according to her devoted daughter she very quietly just took her last breath.

Stella had been my patient for over 20 years and her loss has made me reflect just how much richer my life is for having patients like Stella in it. And it has nothing to do with her medical conditions although, of course, that has been the reason our paths crossed.

Quite simply, I just loved the way Stella viewed the world. She was always curious and interested, she loved reading, classical music, appreciated the beautiful in art, nature and history. She was educated and wise but never judgemental and her enthusiasm was infectious. Over two decades I’ve lost track of how many books or articles I’ve read, shows I’ve watched and exhibitions I’ve visited based on Stella’s recommendation. Even a trip to the Galapagos Islands had its origins in Stella’s descriptions following her trip there a number of years before.

Stella was British but just loved Australia and was forever appreciative of how good life was here. I once met her walking home on a suburban street one evening – she’d just attended a local council meeting. She wasn’t on the council and the meeting wasn’t discussing anything directly related to her but she said she felt we were so fortunate to live in a society where she could attend and participate in such meetings, that she felt she should. I often think of that encounter. That demonstration of gratitude for something I (to my shame) have always taken for granted.

She was involved in Bushcare, loved op shops and made jam which she sold to raise money for the Royal Flying Doctor. Her marmalade was superb. She never came to the surgery without a jar for me (and another for the receptionist and yet another for the chemist). Even some of her specialists were marmalade beneficiaries – I know because it was in their reports!! Stella did gratitude well.

Over the last few years as Stella’s COPD got worse her energy and mobility also deteriorated. But in true Stella style, she’d ration the resources she still had, to connect with people and the things she loved. She would no longer entertain with dinner parties but instead invite small groups for wine-and-cheese afternoons, she’d organise a wheelchair so she could attend a concert at the Opera House and she became an online fiend – ordering everything from groceries to gardening services, and staying in touch with her army of friends all around the globe.

Stella didn’t discover some big cancer cure, broker world peace or win Telstra businesswoman of the year, but I found her inspirational. To my mind she really maximised life. She epitomised the Rudyard Kipling goal of filling the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run.

I feel I learned so much from her.

I’m grateful to general practice for giving me the opportunity to not only meet Stella but to know her well in terms of attitude to life, love and loss.

When I have a run of heartsink patients or just feel overwhelmed at the surgery, I need to remember the Stellas of this world.

It helps keep things in perspective and stops me taking for granted the fact that we, as GPs, can meet and be involved with some truly incredible people. Vale Stella. I will miss you.

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