Coming full circle
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Photo by: Warren Clarke. Dr John D'Arcy

WHEN Dr John D’Arcy says that he has a story to tell about the Pope, it feels like he’s about to embark on some kind of well-rehearsed bad joke. As it turns out, the tale is exceptionally well rehearsed, but it is not so much about the Pope as the accidental launch of D’Arcy’s media career.

It was 1981 and D’Arcy’s practice was not far from Channel 7’s offices in the Sydney suburb of Epping.

As a result, many of his patients worked in TV and called on him for advice when medical issues cropped up in stories. One patient, a producer, called him in excited tones to announce that Pope John Paul II had been shot. Did D’Arcy know a surgeon she could speak to for the story?

D’Arcy put forward a name, but shortly afterwards received another call. The surgeon wasn’t available. There was a car waiting out the front. D’Arcy was required at the studio. At once.

Steve Liebman said to me, “Tell me, what do you make of the Pope being shot? Could he die?” D’Arcy recalls.

In the absence of detail or specialist knowledge, D’Arcy responded in the only way he could

“Yes.”

Could he survive?

”Yes.”

D’Arcy chuckles happily, 26 years of telling the story not detracting from his enjoyment.

Then he sobers. It’s a true story,” he says, enhancing any suspicion it’s improved in the telling over time.

I’ve read his agent’s promotional blurb, which heralds D’Arcy as Australia’s best-known media doctor and the first medical practitioner appointed to an Australian newsroom. He’s worked on some of the country’s highest rating TV shows and these days he stars on breakfast TV, regional radio and has a regular column in a high-profile women’s magazine.

I’m half expecting to meet an intimidating, arrogant smooth talker. Within minutes of meeting him, it’s clear he’s anything but.

D’Arcy, 60, collects me on his way past Australian Doctor’s office, en route to the studio where he records his radio show.

A flustered pink face stark against white hair, he introduces himself and launches straight into telling me about this morning’s horrible discovery; a dead possum rotting in his roof in a tight spot where it can’t be removed. From there, his conversation flits from one subject to another. He tells me his radio show, Health Matters, is beamed to 63 regional radio stations and that he also writes a weekly column for New Idea. He misses talkback radio, having worked for 2GB and 2UE years ago. He’s concerned because he has only four minutes today in which to interview the father of a young girl with Rhett’s syndrome. He won’t have time to speak properly with the father, which makes him uncomfortable. That’s one of the reasons he’s keen to work as a GP again, sometime this year.

“Getting to know the person you’re dealing with, what their pressures and enjoyments are, I miss that enormously and that’s why I do plan to go back to general practice,” he says.

“There’s a great privilege in that.”

We arrive at the studio with time to spare. D’Arcy orders coffees and one macadamia biscuit, which he divides neatly into four and sits on top of a paper bag to share. He offers a quick family history. Both of his parents were actors. His father, Francis Theodore O’Donnell, died aged 49, when D’Arcy was nine.

D’Arcy is his mother Marie’s maiden name.

“When I started in the media in 1981, the AMA and doctors in general were severely opposed to people using their own name, because it gave you an unfair advantage in practice,” he says.

Marie is 91 years old, living independently in the Blue Mountains and 100% with it; “a wonderful

woman”

He remembers his mother bursting in on him in the bathroom when his father passed away.

“I couldn’t understand why she had come in. I was on the loo.”

The image of soiled bed sheets, piled up in the laundry has stayed with him. An overweight smoker, Francis had a stroke in his sleep, leaving Marie to raise their three children, and later a nephew, alone.

“My early life was very troubled,” D’Arcy says.

“But my mother never allowed us to be anxious. I never for one moment felt we were any different to anybody else, yet we were absolutely impoverished.”

His father, once a carpenter, built the house he grew up in, in Gillies St, Wollstonecraft, on Sydney’s leafy North Shore. The house has long gone but D’Arcy enjoys driving past to admire an old eucalypt that still has two hooks from his childhood swing.

The family’s GP lived across the road. As a child D’Arcy watched him come and go in his Rover, doing house calls at night. He was touched by the way he looked after his family, both when his father was alive, and afterwards. That, combined with the impact of his father’s death, inspired him to enter general practice.

Up in the recording studio, D’Arcy looks so at home it’s difficult to picture him at a surgery. That’s not to say that he is cool and in control, or that he has the technology mastered. He pokes at the buttons on the audio mixer muttering, I’m hopeless at this” before appealing, with a laugh, for help from a staff member who clearly adores him.

D’Arcy’s reading through a script someone else has written, scratching things out and “D’Arcy-ising it”

Mid-way through the session he rocks back in his chair, takes a breath and says: “I’m a bit exhausted now.”

He strums his fingers on his desk and gets straight back into it. On air, his voice springs into animated enthusiasm. He’s personable and warm, bubbling with good nature and gentle humour. Off air, his voice becomes that of a man quietly frustrated by a distracting buzz through his headset, bad phone lines, interviewees not answering his calls and time running out.

He’s at the end of his show and his interviewing style suddenly reflects that he really needs to wind up and go. Off air he directs the expert he’s interviewing, “Just close off and tell me something nice and then we’ll go off, mate.”

He leaves in a fluster, confident he’s late for his next meeting and has copped a parking fine.

“I’ll have been booked for sure,” he says. Yet he makes time to give my arm a gentle, grandfatherly pat and offer advice on where to find a cab.

AS much as I’ve come to quite like D’Arcy, I’m fighting a very real urge to throttle him.

I’m trying to work out exactly what relationship he has with Yakult, the Pharmacy Guild and various other companies and organisations that pay to have him spread their message.

It’s reasonable territory to explore, given the obvious ethical issues surrounding cash for comment, but the more I try to clarify the arrangements the more confused I become.

There’s no sense that D’Arcy has anything to hide — he spells out that he’s careful not to take on sponsorship deals that would compromise him and that all financial relationships are announced. And, to be fair, part of the reason it’s confusing is that it’s a complex set-up — some sponsor his weekly radio show, one sponsors his daily one-minute Health Check flash, others have a direct financial relationship with D’Arcy outside both these radio commitments and sometimes these relationships overlap. But exacerbating all of this is that when asked a simple and direct question, D’Arcy offers anything but a simple, direct answer.

Asked what he does for Australian Hearing, he starts a long-winded story about how his son-in-law asked him that very question while they were playing golf the other day. He does a little impersonation of his son-in-law’s American accent. He explains how he then happened to bump into a woman he’d met though Australian Hearing and how she had a child who was hearing impaired and ended up with a Cochlear implant.

I ask the question again.

He says he acts as Hearing Australia’s ambassador. I ask what being an ambassador entails. “I put a face on their scientific efforts.”

I start to question my interview technique. Then he volunteers that today he’s going to meet with an audiologist and “it’s her point of view we’ll be pushing” on Health Matters.

I’ll speak with her today and their [Hearing Australias] communications guru about what they want to achieve.”

He sometimes does the same for the Meat and Livestock Corporation, or Dairy Australia, or a pharmaceutical company “wanting to emphasise the appropriate use of their medication”.

Finally, D’Arcy explains that Australian Hearing is one of the organisations that sponsors Health Matters and so pays the Macquarie Regional Radio Works Network. I’m still not entirely clear, and this is a dreadful confession from a journalist whether the organisation has a separate direct financial relationship with him as well.

Sensing my exasperation, D’Arcy offers cheerily, “The interesting thing about me is that I’ve got a short attention span.”

Rather oddly, he adds: “It’s the sort of thing that attracts you to general practice.”

In the end, it’s one of D’Arcy’s former general practice colleagues who helps to make sense of D’Arcy’s scattered style. Dr Peter Skelton, who bought D’Arcy’s general practice partnership when he left to focus on media, says D’Arcy is a natural story teller and a big-picture person whose natural instinct is to tell a story rather than formulate disciplined answers.

He says that D’Arcy’s media roles mean he does have to observe some rules and he can rise to the occasion when he has to, “but generally details are someone else’s problem”.

Dr Skelton admires the courage it took D’Arcy to change career, but wasn’t surprised and says the role suits him.

“He’s a frustrated actor, I would think.”

As a GP, Dr Skelton says D’Arcy was widely loved, and there was a positive aura when he was around and loud laughing heard from his room

”D’Arcy’s style didn’t appeal to everyone, however, with one patient complaining that the consultation was like a three-ringed circus.”

While circus is probably unfair, D’Arcy does have a reputation for juggling more balls than he can calmly manage at once and, as a result, regularly being late.

Dr Skelton recalls D’Arcy getting booked for having parked too long in the street outside the surgery and deciding that he wasn’t going to cop it sweet.

He waited keenly for his time in court, but then got caught up with media commitments.

“He sent his mother to represent him,” Dr Skelton says.

“She is this warm, delightful raconteur. I’m sure she got him off.”

It seems D’Arcy has inherited some of these traits. Dr Skelton says when D’Arcy announced he was leaving the practice, he wanted to have the option to come back if his media aspirations failed.

“Some other partners were not at all keen and they got a bit heated about it,” he says.

I remember him smiling and saying, “This is what I’d like to do. He appealed to our better nature and sense of fair play to accommodate his desires. He didn’t get angry and shout.”

D’Arcy won and a contract was drafted. But he never did need to go back.

DEDICATED TO GETTING THE MESSAGE OUT

Having worked on Today Tonight, Terry Willesee Tonight and with Derryn Hinch, Dr John D’Arcy makes no apology for having starred at the sensational end of journalism.

“It’s all very well to be on the Australian Government’s broadcaster and talk cleverly with other people of intelligence about what they consider the point of the day,” he says.

“But it’s very difficult to talk to people in the malls and football grounds about similar topics. They are my most important target. They reflect the people you see in general practice.”

D’Arcy says sometimes you have to put information in the oddest places to ensure people see it.

“It doesn’t matter what your education level is, it’s amazing the people who read, or are stimulated by, gossipy encouragements to read, listen or watch”

It is important to him, however, that some kind of reasonable perspective is achieved by the story’s end. If I thought an issue was going to increase anxiety, not lower it throughout the program, I would have to bite leather and argue my point forcibly.

”D’Arcy can remember only one time when he felt seriously compromised. He covered a story on statins, sparked by one high-profile patient from the US who claimed they caused memory loss. D’Arcy covered the story, but argued with his producer about one grab. D’Arcy felt it would cause people to stop taking the medication. The producer didn’t. D’Arcy lost.

“I questioned my role and came to think if suddenly someone did stop taking their statins and die, what would I say to the jury,” he says.

“I felt bad about that.”

While D’Arcy has worked for a significant number of TV and radio shows, he probably achieved his greatest media exposure after falling out of a tree. He’d just finished an eight-week trip with the science show Beyond 2000 and arrived home to find he had been robbed. D’Arcy was concerned the thief had climbed up a tree, which had branches dangling over the roof, so he set about hacking it back.

“Like all good men, I think I can do anything,” he says.

A green branch flicked back, knocking him in the head. The father of four split his cochlear in two and sustained severe frontal lobe damage.

“I shouldn’t have survived,” he says.

The accident made newspaper headlines and his progress was followed on talkback radio by John Laws and Alan Jones. Friends rallied round and collected money for him, which was wonderful but bad

Friends rallied round and collected money for him, which was “wonderful but bad” (touched, but embarrassed, he gave the money back) and the first girl he ever kissed left a roast dinner on his front step.

It was a traumatic time for D’Arcy, who had to learn to walk and talk again, but he says it was much harder on his wife, Wendy O’Donnell, a nurse who has worked as a medical adviser for All Saints, A Country Practice and now for Home and Away. Their youngest child was two.

“I felt vulnerable, but not as vulnerable as my wife did,” he says.

After the accident, he returned to Beyond 2000. His producer at the time, Brad Lyons, says Darky, as he was affectionately known, was still recovering during the eight-week trip they did through New Zealand, the US and UK. Despite being unsteady on his feet, D’Arcy finished 20 stories on topics as varied as hydro-electricity, heated prawn farming and depression.

“He worked bloody hard to get back to full speed,” he says.

“Beneath the good-natured, humorous bloke, he’s very dedicated to his cause. He’s very passionate about getting medicine’s messages out and demystifying it – getting messages out in a very simple way.”

While he says D’Arcy communicates complex messages simply, he also has a natural charisma that helps to ensure he is heard.

“If you want to talk bedside manner, I reckon he has one of the best. He’s a great people person.”

He remembers people constantly being drawn to D’Arcy while they were away. He laughs: “And it’s not because of his devilish good looks, I can tell you that.”

 

 

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