Dr Stephen Parnis (MBBS 1992, PG DipSurgAnat 2000) developed a social conscience early growing up in Melbourne’s western suburbs – and is still fighting for what he believes is right.
As a pre-schooler, Dr Parnis insisted on attending a community meeting when the Whitlam Government planned sewerage services in the west. His recollection is sketchy but his father, Manny, who migrated from Malta to Sunshine in 1964 and married Australian-born Christina in 1967, tells him he would not take no for an answer.
It was the start of a journey through education, medicine and social activism that defines Dr Parnis in his roles as a Consultant Emergency Physician at St Vincent's Hospital, the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital and Werribee Mercy Hospital.
He called for more personal protective equipment (PPE) early in 2020 as emergency specialists scrambled to prepare for COVID-19 and shared his experience online when he was forced to spend 14 days in isolation.
“I’ve been a troublemaker for a long time,” he says. “I’m about as shy as a bulldozer.”
EDUCATION PROVIDES OPPORTUNITIES
After attending St John’s College in Braybrook, Dr Parnis, 50, won a scholarship and spent four years at Xavier College. Inspired by work experience with endocrinologist Professor Emeritus Jack Martin AO (MBBS 1960, MD 1969, DSc 1979, Hon LLD 2012) and a much-admired family GP, he was the first member of his extended family to attend university. While studying medicine at the University of Melbourne, he tuned his political radar in the Student Union, including as chair.
Dr Parnis thrived through three years of study and three years of hospital placement. Contemporaries included Victoria’s Opposition Leader the Hon Michael O’Brien (BCom 1997, LLB (Hons) 1997), who was also involved in campus politics, and Victorian Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton (MBBS 1993).
“A really important part of my university education was those things outside of the lecture theatre, things like being part of the Student Union,” Dr Parnis says.
INSPIRED TO HELP OTHERS
He considered psychiatry, general practice, and surgery before deciding on emergency medicine, partly due to its collegiate culture. He held several senior AMA Victoria positions and was national AMA Vice President from 2014 to 2016.
Throughout his career, Dr Parnis has never been afraid to say what he believes is right on issues such as public health, university fees and euthanasia laws.
Among his proudest achievements are helping to prevent $3 billion in health service co-payments, raising the profile of mental health issues among medical professionals and increasing awareness around the health effects of alcohol and climate change.
ON THE COVID-19 FRONT LINE
Life is slightly less political now but no less eventful, with COVID-19 affecting this dedicated health professional’s work and life in 2020. While preparing for the crisis, he was quarantined for 14 days due to contact with confirmed cases.
Dr Parnis documented his experience, during which he displayed some symptoms, but tested negative. Back at work, all staff must take precautions to prevent the infection of patients and themselves, including physical distancing and using PPE.
“Every patient who comes to an emergency department, you have to ask yourself: Is this a potential COVID case?” Dr Parnis says. “We know the numbers are smaller but you can’t let your guard down.”
Dr Parnis echoes the sentiments of many when he says Australia has done extremely well in containing COVID-19’s first wave, which highlights the importance of authorities being honest and open. “We like to value and cherish our freedoms as individuals, but we’ve also got a strong sense of community and look after each other,” he says.
One of the few benefits of COVID-19 was more time with his children.
“Having time with your loved ones is probably the most important thing that we have,” he says.
Whatever happens next, Dr Parnis will continue to speak out, promote the value of education and defend his beloved west, where he still resides.