The Bridge Interviews
Dr Oliver Sharpley
This month’s interviewee is a man who can be said to have stood with one foot on either side of the valley. He has lived most of his life in Fulbrook but spent the major part of his career based in Burford. Before settling to life by the Windrush, he spent some time travelling to some very distant places.
Oliver Sharpley was born in Chipping Norton hospital. The home in Fulbrook he was taken to as a baby is the same one where he and his wife Robyn now live. His father was a GP who practised in Burford in partnership with his old medical school friend, Dr Dick Eager, at Wysdom Cottage next to the bridge. Oliver started school at what is now Bell House in Taynton from where he progressed to prep school and then Public School. He admits to having had some hesitation about whether he was cut out for a medical career but eventually entered St Thomas’s Hospital in London and has no regrets about his choice. During his medical studies, he and his brother spent a year motor racing. The car was built in the garage of Patrick Head, who later was co- founder and technical director of the Williams Formula One Team. “I eventually wrote off the car at Castle Combe and I couldn’t afford to replace it”.
After graduating Oliver spent a year as a junior hospital doctor in London. Then his father was injured in a serious car accident in 1974 and could not work for six months. Oliver became his locum in Burford for that period but realised that he had some gaps in his knowledge, especially in the fields of obstetrics and gynaecology. He decided to remedy this by getting some experience in South Africa, initially at St Edward’s Hospital in Durban. This was during the apartheid era and St Edward’s, a “blacks only” hospital, was at the time the second-busiest maternity unit in the world. “We had two sets of quadruplets in two weeks”. He then moved to the Addington Hospital, also in Durban, which was reserved for “whites” and “coloureds” (people of mixed race). After that he spent some time working in the casualty department at the Addington. He also learnt to fly, a skill which came in handy later.
He takes up the story. “Prior to going to South Africa I bought a Kombi van with an English friend intending for us to drive back to England after completing my South African work. He decided to sell out, so his share was bought by an Australian anaesthetist. He wanted to go back to Australia so we agreed to go up through Africa and then turn right and head for Australia. We couldn’t enter Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe] because there was a civil war going on there so we went through Botswana and crossed the Zambezi into Zambia on a raft. From Zambia we went through Malawi and Tanzania to Kenya where we spent three months. We then continued north to Addis Ababa where there was a curfew after Haile Selassie [emperor of Ethiopia] had just been killed in a coup. We decided to drive to Djibouti on the Red Sea in convoy with an Englishman and a New Zealander in another car. There was no road, just a track following the railway line. We regularly became bogged in dry river creeks and had to dig ourselves out. One night when camped by the railway line a train stopped next to our vehicles and lots of men with guns disembarked and started banging on the side of the Kombi. We thought we were about to be killed but they turned out to be government forces who warned us that we were in bandit country near the Somali border and that we should only camp in police compounds in villages. We entered Djibouti by crossing a salt lake. The first thing we came to was a French Foreign Legion fort. The legionnaires were astonished to see two British registered vehicles approaching across the lake. Driving into Djibouti [still a French colony in those days] was like driving into Paris. The pavements were lined with cafés and people drinking coffee.
“We were delayed in Djibouti whilst negotiating the sale of one car and arranging passage for the Kombi across the Red Sea to Aqaba in Jordan. It was nearly Christmas so we left the van there and flew back to Fulbrook for a surprise visit. After Christmas the Kiwi and the Englishman, who were travelling in convoy with us, bought a new car in London and all four of us drove about 4000 miles across Europe to pick up the Kombi van in Aqaba.” More adventures followed as they drove across Turkey, Syria and Iran and entered Afghanistan including surviving a severe Turkish winter in which the van battery regularly froze. The Kombi engine burnt its valves just after entering Afghanistan and had to be towed 500 miles by the other car to Kabul where the engine was rebuilt. From there they went through the Khyber Pass to Pakistan, India, Nepal and eventually to Calcutta (“We camped for several weeks in the grounds of the cathedral whilst negotiating sea passage for the Kombi to Sydney”).
Did you manage to keep in touch with your family during this time? “Aerogrammes*. I sent one every two weeks and my mother replied by post restante”.
In Kenya Oliver had applied to emigrate to Australia. In New Delhi he learnt that his emigration request was successful which meant a cheaper flight from Calcutta to Brisbane. He then obtained a job with a GP who was setting up a self-flying GP service based in Mount Isa, Northern Queensland (unlike the official Royal Flying Doctor Service which is flown by a commercial pilot). He had to do 70 hours of conversion, learning to fly by dead reckoning across trackless wastes. (“The only landmarks were the wiggles in dry river beds. It was OK until the monsoon when there were massive thunderstorms and you had to divert around them and still get where you wanted to go”). He flew with his dog, Spit, who was popular with children in the remote townships where he did his clinics.
In Mount Isa Oliver met his Australian wife Robyn, who had just returned from Europe. He did locum jobs on the eastern seaboard of Australia and in Tasmania. In 1979 he heard that Dr Eager was retiring from the Burford practice, and there was an opportunity to join his father in the practice. “We decided to come here. If it didn’t work out we could go back to Australia, otherwise I would have lost the chance to join my father”. The Burford Surgery was still at Wysdom Cottage at the bottom of Burford Hill. Robyn and Oliver moved to a cottage in Fulbrook where their three children were born: Jamison, who now works in a bank in Sydney and has daughters aged five and three; Rowan, a senior design engineer for Dyson who lives nearby at Langford and has a son aged five and a daughter of 18 months; and Anneka, who lives in London and works for Google.
Initially the practice consisted of Dr Eager, Oliver’s father, Oliver and an administrator. On Dr Eager’s retirement they were joined by Dr Andy Brown, an old friend of Oliver’s from medical school. In 1986 Oliver’s father retired and the practice moved to the new surgery in Sheep Street. “There were a lot of negotiations because it meant extending the town but it made sense as it was close to where the hospital was”. The new surgery brought in many changes: the practice was accredited as a training practice, a 360 degree appraisal process, and computerisation.. We pruned and summarised patient’s paper records at home in the evenings and entered them onto the computer. By 1997 we were largely paperless. We were one of the first surgeries in the country to do this. “Due to pressure of work by both GPs and hospitals it was always a battle to communicate with our hospital consultant colleagues. So sad because a medical problem can often be dealt with efficiently with a quick communication. In 1997 we felt it necessary to write to all of our consultant colleagues to explain that we would send our patients a copy of our referral letter to facilitate their consultation with the specialist. In turn we asked consultants to send a copy of their consultation direct to patient with a copy to the GP (now standard practice). This caused a mixed response including one surgeon who replied “Dear Oliver, why don’t you boil your head in a bucket….!”
In 2002 another change which Oliver promoted was telephone triage. “The idea was to have one doctor available, not booked up with appointments, to take the first call from patients and assess how serious their condition was and arrange their most appropriate care, which had worked very well when we did our after hours care. I was summoned by the GP committee in Oxford to a meeting to explain that I was not trying to avoid patient contact but use time more efficiently.
“General Practice changed enormously during my career. Care and monitoring of chronic illnesses moved from Hospital to General Practice and all had to be recorded and accounted for. Not only did we have to firefight the front door but also cope with more and more backroom work with its inevitable time pressure. The patient’s agenda in the consultation was sometimes contaminated by the need for preventative medicine and monitoring of their other illnesses. It was very satisfying to help a patient to learn to manage their own ill health without becoming dependent on me. Patients often presented with a disguised worry and trying to expose their real concern was always a huge challenge.”
“Retirement in 2009 came as a huge relief, getting away from the stress of constantly fighting the clock. “I always wanted to be a train driver but that proved to be too difficult so I became a bus driver instead.” He became a volunteer driver on the Villager bus from Stow to Witney. The final stop was Sainsbury’s at Witney. The passengers would fill up their tartan shopping trolleys with as many heavy items as they could find and then look expectantly at me to see if I would lift it onto the bus for them.”
Oliver chairs the Fulbrook Forum, which features regularly in these pages. “We are very lucky to have a uniquely wonderful community in Fulbrook, which decided us to retire here. People look after each other. Once when visiting Australia a tree fell across our driveway taking the electricity and telephone lines down. Upon our return our good neighbours had sorted everything out.
Oliver’s favourite recommendation to patients was exercise. (His second favourite involved an alternative use of a hairdryer). He used to do Canadian Air Force exercises and two or three times a week he did a six and a half mile run via Swinbrook and Asthall (“very good for stress control”). The running stopped after a hip replacement but in retirement he still does press ups and pull ups each morning (to Robyn’s concern about the strength of the joists) and he and Robyn enjoy walking their Border/Lakeland cross terrier, Crumpet (“it makes me go out every day, rain or shine”). They do walking holidays with Inntravel as well as frequent visits to the family in Australia. He does lots of gardening and maintenance on their 15 acres of land, and performs surgery on various domestic appliances with some help from YouTube. He is a member of the Fulbrook Pedaller’s cycling club and the grandchildren keep Robyn and Oliver busy.
*For younger readers: a foldable form on thin paper and prepaid postage on which a letter could be written on the inside and the address put on the outside. WhatsApp for the 1970s.