For about 30 years, Hilton Koppe worked as a country general practitioner (GP) , after his yearning for the ocean and being under the trees – and some sage advice from a tax office worker who dabbled in clairvoyance on weekends – prompted him to relocate from Sydney to the far north coast of New South Wales.One Curious Doctor
grew out of an essay Hilton Koppe wrote about ‘spontaneous remission’, during which he discovered the power of free writing. Writing was his way of coming to terms with the challenges of working on the front line of life and death, where he discovered his medical training, which taught him to think the worst, meant it wasn't always easy to focus on hope.
When Koppe's mental health unravelled, he found himself offering forced optimism, getting angry, missing diagnoses and feeling resentful. But it's only when he was lying in an MRI scanner thinking, 'this is the most peaceful I've felt in ages', that he realised he was in trouble.
In setting out to tell his life story, Koppe has adopted an unusual narrative approach, telling the story in reverse: beginning with his Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnosis before retracing his own life story and then two generations of paternal and maternal family history.
Koppe travels to Europe to research that history and, with an extraordinary stroke of luck, finds records of his great-grandmother Hane and her husband Ben Hiras, which then lead to his grandmother Reveka, her husband Nisonas and their extended family.
Using old family photos, he writes speculative journal entries of his grandparents and great-grandparents – when writing in the voice of his grandmother Rosi he writes, ‘Stephan, he will be fine. Bert, it’s harder to tell.’ This hints at the intergenerational trauma he comes to realise he has inherited. Koppe goes on to explore, with immense compassion, the legacy of emotionally unavailable men in his family.
He also examines the perils of scientific rationalism and the limitations of the ‘logical, rational, scientific mind’ when trying to ‘grasp something mercurial’, especially when trying to understand healing.
For some readers (like me), Koppe's honest and open memoir demonstrates why there should be space in our health system for mystery – and a little more research about the power of the placebo effect.
Koppe's robust sense of humour is also interspersed throughout the more serious subject matter as he recounts how, in 2015, he fulfilled his lifetime ambition to play football for Australia when he made his debut for the Master Docceroos (Australia’s over-45 doctors' soccer team) at the annual World Medical Football Championships. He describes himself as 'the oldest and least skilful player to ever represent Australia!'