By Mario Pinti

    Cometh the moment, cometh the person.

    And what a moment it was: the arrival of a pandemic that challenged all our certainties.

    And what a person Melbourne’s west has in Mukesh Haikerwal, the long-time North Altona doctor who stepped forward to help guide his community and profession through those difficult early days.

    ‘It was petrifying at the time,’ says Haikerwal, ‘We didn’t know what we were getting into, what we were doing. We just knew we had to get on with it.’

    Getting on with it is exactly what he and his team did, and the learning curve was steep.

    Covid 19 not only up-ended the lives of families and individuals but it radically changed the way major medical centres like Haikerwal’s could operate to care for its people.

    Everything suddenly changed.

    New rooms and buildings were added to his existing facilities, car parks were turned into triage areas and testing zones, inadequate protective equipment for frontline workers had to be replaced, more than a hundred new staff had to be trained and mobilised in a streamlined way to avoid contagion and, not the least of it, there was the challenge to make better use of telehealth and onsite consultation rooms for all the garden variety non-Covid illnesses patients still presented with.

    ‘It started off really, really scratchy,’ he says, ‘But we had to work quickly. It needed good communication and good-will by all.’ 

    There was also the bigger need beyond his clinic that Haikerwal could see and contributed to: a system-wide response bringing together doctors, allied health workers, governments and bureaucracies to find ways to better wrap services around people with differing needs and to take the load off hospital casualty wards.

    All that before the rollout of vaccines!

    Looking back now in the relative calm of May 2023, Haikerwal agrees it felt like being whiplashed. Yet who else could have done the job he did, with the wealth of experience and respect within the medical community that he brought? There’s something serendipitous about this man’s journey from the UK to join his mother in the west in 1990 to practice medicine, to have stayed and been on hand when the need was greatest.

    About the west in those days, he says: ‘It was a great place to work, challenging. I wouldn’t say “deprived”, I would say under supported, under resourced. People have a very strong spirit, and feeling, and are committed. Even though some are doing it tough, they’re doing good stuff, they soldier through adversity.

    ‘We do have populations with high health needs. There are predisposing environmental and physical factors for this in the west. But the support has improved remarkably since we started here.

    ‘Bit by bit over the last 30 years things have improved: attracting and retaining doctors in the area, seeing additional funding coming in from state and federal processes. We advocated for improved public and private hospital services across the west and we’ve got that. The facilities have improved. 

    Did he meet resistance and opposition along the way from government and the bureaucracy? ‘Yes. All of the above,’ he says with a laugh. 

    ‘The next step now is to see how we can do more of what we do in hospitals out in the community. “Joined up health care”, I call it. Everyone talking to each other, with hospitals, our centres of excellence, expanding their walls to bring in community health providers. ’

    This includes furthering the digitisation of health care so doctors can see in real time a patient’s medical history and the treatments they’ve received so as to help facilitate better decision making and patient care.

    ‘Unfortunately the journey for the patient is still quite stymied,’ he says, explaining that getting information about a patient from other places is still a struggle.

    For all the improvements made, some populations in the west, as across many sections of Australian society, are becoming sicker: ‘Covid itself, patients not going to get care to do the preventive stuff. While in the background we have high levels of obesity and people being overweight. We’re also older, getting the diseases of old age which can’t be gotten rid of with a tablet.’ 

    Here he talks about the importance of high quality early intervention, prevention and, again, access to critical services at the local level whether it be medicine, nutrition or lifestyle. 

    His message to the people in the west: ‘It’s in your hands. Be connected, look after your back, your mate’s back, your family’s back. And that’s what you do see. People out here are very proud of their communities. They can advocate for their families and friends.’

    When you chat with Haikerwal you will quickly come to realise that political activism and medical practice sit easy on his shoulders. ‘Yes. We have to argue for the best medical care that we can give,’ he says, adding, ‘The medical profession isn’t always liked in bureaucratic circles because you’re seen to be getting in their way.’ 

    Not that he’s apologising.

    While Haikerwal chuckles at the accusation made by some that the Australian Medical Association under his leadership and others became, derisively, the ‘doctors union’, he in fact warmly embraces it: ‘It’s not simply about doctors. The big public health issues are important and so are the local needs of people for better, connected services. That needs continued advocacy so that we remain in the top tier of healthy nations.’ 

    Hard to disagree with that.

    At the young age of 62, retirement for Haikerwal does not seem imminent. ‘I’m too driven,’ he says. ‘My dad said to me “Never sit still” and that’s what I do.’

    If a medallion was struck for each and every contribution Haikerwal has made to improving medical outcomes for his community and nation, and they were pinned to his jacket, I don’t imagine he could take a step without falling over. And the best gong of all for this Companion of the order of Australia? Being selected as Hobsons Bay Council’s 2021 citizen of the year is perhaps the most special: ‘To be recognised by my community is pretty touching.’

    Cometh the moment, cometh the person, cometh the well-deserved praise. 

    Our content is a labour of love, crafted by dedicated volunteers who are passionate about the west. We encourage submissions from our community, particularly stories about your own experiences, family history, local issues, your suburb, community events, local history, human interest stories, food, the arts, and environmental matters. Below are articles created by community contributors. You can find their names in the bylines.

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