So long good doctor

Doctor John Harrison has come to the end of his career after more than three decades seeing to the community's dental needs. 

Dr John Harrison is retiring after more than three decades of seeing to the dental needs of people from around the region. Picture: CAITLIN McARTHUR

Dr John Harrison is retiring after more than three decades of seeing to the dental needs of people from around the region. Picture: CAITLIN McARTHUR

The senior dentist at the Swan Hill Dental Group will retire later this month, closing the book on a lengthy career which also included stints in London, Broken Hill and Melbourne. 

He has seen his field evolve dramatically throughout the years and mentored more than a few brighteyed graduates fresh out of university. 

When Mr Harrison first arrived in the Heart of the Murray there were two practicing dentists struggling with a severe shortage in practitioners and high demand for their services. 

"It was a nightmare, we certainly had a monopoly on dentistry in town, but it was not a monopoly we particularly wanted," he said. 

With "nine to ten" dentists now in town along with a "couple of hygienists", Mr Harrison said Swan Hill has since managed to overcome this problem. 

Like any job Mr Harrison said dentistry has "had its moments" and the "occasional disaster", but all in all when he looks back at his career the 64-year old finds plenty to laugh about. 

His entry into the field is something he considered particularly ridiculous.

"I was never interested in dentistry, when I was a kid at school I actually wanted to join the navy," he said. 

"The master at the grammar school asked me what I was going to do after I graduated and I told him I was going to join the navy.

"He said 'Look, I don't think you should do that, I think you should go to an interview in London and I'm going to tee it up for you'." 

What followed was an interview at the London Hospital Medical College, which Mr Harrison described as more of a "long chat". 

A decision was made and Mr Harrison found himself set on an entirely new track. 

"Next thing I knew I was given an offer to go into sounded pretty daunting and not terribly attractive at the time, but it seemed as good as anything else so I ditched my ambitions to join the navy and I did that completely, without any thought whatsoever," he said. 

In hindsight Mr Harrison said the move was "pretty stupid really", having never sat in a classroom with a "burning passion to be a dentist, in fact far from it". 

Luckily for him his spontaneous venture into oral hygiene worked out. 

"I have loved my career and in actual fact and fortunately, I have suited it," he said. 

Mr Harrison grew up outside of London, but trained and practiced in the British capital for nine years before turning his eye to a life Down Under. 

"I came to Australia on a whim really, I applied for several jobs overseas because I was young, fairly carefree and thought I would like to work overseas," he said.

"I received a reply from a dental clinic in Broken Hill and apparently I was the only applicant for the job so you know, I got it." 

From Broken Hill he moved to Melbourne and then Swan Hill in the early-1980s. 

Mr Harrison said in a way his career here started in The Guardian and it was "funny" it should now end there. 

"I really only came up here because my mother-in-law put my wedding photo in the paper — my wife, Laurel, is a local girl born and bred — and it said Laurel Gilbert marries Melbourne dentist," he said. 

"At the time it was impossible to find dentists anywhere so I got a phone call from the local guys up here and they said 'come have a look'." 

Mr Harrison said he had initially intended to refuse the offer, but Laurel talked him around. 

"She said 'Oh let's just go up and have a look' and so we did. I really like them so we came up here to work and I said 'Oh I'll work for a few months and that will be it', and now here I am 33 years later," he said. 

Since then Mr Harrison has raised three sons in the area, but none even considered followed him into dentistry. 

"Absolutely not, they wouldn't in a million years...that went without saying," he said. 

It might not be the most glamorous trade, but it is one Mr Harrison said he has grown to love.

"I have had a lovely life here. It's a great practice, a great place. I've had a lot of lovely patients and the local people have been really good to me," he said. 

Mr Harrison said while the community has been welcoming, he's still yet to be accepted as a fullfledged local. 

"Not quite, I haven't really got the right accent, but I'm getting there," he said. 

Mr Harrison went part-time at the practice three years ago to spend a little more time with the family and is now looking towards retirement with mixed feelings. 

"A year ago it seemed like a good idea because I turned 64 and I sort of just felt old and there's that Beatles song 'When I'm 64' but now that I'm about to retire on I’m sort of like ‘Uhhh I don't know’," he said. 

Mr Harrison said there was no other particular reason for the timing. 

"I'm perfectly happy doing what I'm doing, but maybe it is time. Life is a finite thing and I feel I should perhaps be doing other things, what those other things are I'm not quite sure yet," he said, adding there are things he would miss about the job. 

"I really enjoy people and working with them. I really enjoyed most of my patients who are just the loveliest people and I will miss them a lot really."

To read more stories about people from around our region, grab a copy of Wednesday's Guardian.

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