Dr Rob Ziffer is finally hanging up his stethoscope and switching latex gloves for golf gloves after nearly five decades of providing healthcare services to the Gippsland region.

After 44 years as a consultant physician, specialising in cardiology and a pioneer in Sale Hospital’s critical care services, Dr Rob Ziffer is retiring.

“I have really done a bout of stages. I was working full-time until about five years ago, then I got off the hospital roster because that involved being on call, and I’d been on call all my working life, and that gets a bit demanding,” Dr Ziffer said.

“It was the best part of nearly 50 years on call, so I thought it was time to give that up.”

“Then I just cut back to doing some clinics at the hospital, and I shut my rooms and did some teaching, and I have been doing that for the past four or five years.

“I was just waiting until the hospital in my particular area was struggling a bit with staff, so I didn’t really want to go until that was all sorted out, and then the pandemic came, and everyone had to pull their weight during that time.

“But now that everything is settled down a bit and the hospital’s workforce is substantially more robust, I thought it was a good time to go.”

After graduating from high school, Dr Ziffer wasted no time heading straight to Melbourne University, where he would complete his degree in medicine.

“I was a babyboomer, and things were a bit different then,” Dr Ziffer said.

“The schools were very full, and so you didn’t get a lot of chance to get counselled on where you went.

“I was interested in a couple of things, but in the end, I chose medicine, and I was very glad I did.

“It was also during the 60s, so that was a great time to be young,” he laughed with eyes gleaming, reminiscing on his younger days.

“There was lots happening, a lot of change, and I really enjoyed my time at uni.”

The pathways in medicine are a labyrinth; with so many career paths available, it’s a wonder how one could choose what to pursue. But Dr Ziffer saw what he wanted and did what he had to do to get to where he is today.

“So in medicine, you do your primary degree, then you do some general work, normally in a hospital, you do internships, and you work through it,” Dr Ziffer explained.

“And then somewhere through that process, you decide on where your career path is going to go.

“I became a specialist, so I went through the training program for that.

“I am a specialist called a physician, so that is a specialist in adult medicine as opposed to a pediatrician who is a specialist in child medicine.

“Within that specialty, you can remain there in a general sense, as a general physician, or you can have a sub-speciality interest.

“I was always interested in cardiology, so that became my special interest.

After completing his post-graduate studies and briefly travelling the world, Dr Ziffer and his wife, Margaret Ziffer packed their bags, said goodbye to the city slicker life in Melbourne, and moved to Sale in 1978.

“We had always been quite taken back by the things you see in a rural area, and although neither of us was from a rural area, we had no real experience of it really,” Dr Ziffer said.

“I had worked in rural hospitals that was part of your rotations (as a training doctor), so I worked a bit in the western district and Geelong, but apart from that, we had never lived in a rural area before.

“There was a job advertised here, and Sale, back in those days, had one medical clinic for the whole town.

“So there was one clinic where everybody, specialist and general practitioners worked through the same clinic, and they were looking for a physician.

“I thought, ‘oh, that would be a good thing’, you know you’d get into a structure you didn’t have to have to sort of set up your whole business operation yourself, and you can just do it.

“So I convinced my wife to try it for a couple of years, and that is the end of the story.”

In Dr Ziffer’s 44 years as a physician, he has made significant contributions to the development of Sale Hospital’s critical care unit (CCU), having a considerable say in the replacement design of the 1977 ICU/CCU as part of the hospital’s 1980 major restructure.

In 1990 the redeveloped CCU was operating with Dr Ziffer as one of the staffing physicians alongside Dr Ray Wilson and Dr Howard Connor.

With the hospital’s CCU in operation, Drs. Connor, Wilson, and Ziffer worked hard, putting in long hours, providing patient care throughout the day and alternating between being on call.

Since practising as a physician, Dr Ziffer has had an estimated 750,000 interactions with patients.

“I was trying to work out how many people I saw a day,” Dr Ziffer said.

“So about three-quarters of a million, I’d reckon.

“Not three-quarters of a million different patients, but interactions, so that might be the same patient many times.”

Dr Ziffer’s love for medicine isn’t from the status, money, or notoriety; it’s the people who fuel his love for medicine.

“You see a lot in medicine,” said Dr Ziffer.

“You see a lot of people, and sometimes they are incredibly sad.

“You know, you see people that are injured or become sick, so there are a lot of sad things you have to share with people and try and support them through it.

“It is really important to realise they are the key people, and you have to look after them.

” I’ve had lots of humorous instances; I think it’s always good to have a laugh and keep things light at times, so there are some funny instances to recall.

“Overall, most of the memories are really about the wonderful people that you see.

“You see a lot of patients that have got amazing courage with the way that they deal with an illness and work their way through it.

“You really admire and respect those folk and the way they have handled themselves through that, and it gives you a small insight into the kind of people that they are.

“That is what I really enjoy about medicine – the people.”

Despite initial concerns about missing the city life, Dr Ziffer and his wife Margaret were taken back by the wonders of life regional Victoria offers.

“One of the nice things about working in a regional centre like this is most of the people that work there have ownership in the community and are part of the community,” said Dr Ziffer.

“It has been a fantastic exercise, working with people like that and all the relationships you make; I think they have been the most rewarding things.”

Unfortunately, we all know that life isn’t always easy, that it can be fragile and delicate and absolutely unpredictable, especially in medicine.

“It’s interesting because it is very gratifying when things go well, but they don’t always, not by a long shot, so you have to be able to deal with those sorts of uncertainties,” Dr Ziffer said.

“It takes a while at your own personal level to find your own accommodation with that, and you have to just ensure that you’ve done the best that you can, and you’ve done the best thing by that particular person.

“Like I say, when you’ve had that many interactions, not all of them go well. You make mistakes in how you deal with it, and if you had your time over, you might do things differently and so on, but all you can do is do the best that you can, every day.

“The most difficult thing is when you’ve got sick patients, really.

“The hospital has got a thousand staff or something and various guidelines and its people looking after people, so there are always tensions within that,” Dr Ziffer added.

“It is a very political system, and if you are going to get the best out of it, you have to be aware of that and how that works and just try and do what you can to get the best outcomes.”

From student to doctor to specialist and teacher, Dr Ziffer has worked, and worked hard, his entire life and now is finally taking time to slow down and enjoy the things he loves.

“We will travel; we are going to do a bit of travel over the next couple of months because we’ve got the time, and we’re not committed to anything,” Dr Ziffer said.

“We have done a lot of travel over our time, and we’ve always enjoyed that, my wife and I.”

“I’ve got three kids, Rebecca, Joel and Dan.

“And two of my kids are in Melbourne.

“I play a bit of bridge, and a friend of mine has this sort of an equation; he said you need to be doing seven things a week for five hours each, and that is your 35-hour week, and you can’t count travel.

“So that could be a game of golf, or a game of bridge or going to the gym, or doing some gardening.

“It was a good way to think of it, and I think it’s also good because one of the things I have found is that people often say when I stop work, I’ll play golf or something, and then they take up golf or bowls, and they don’t really enjoy it.”

Dr Ziffer has truly made his mark in medicine, helping thousands of people in the Gippsland community. Forty-four years as a physician has given Dr Ziffer a wealth of knowledge, sharing with young and aspiring doctors to “find what you love and pursue it”.

“As a young student or young doctor, just look around, see what you enjoy and try them all and make sure you are making the right call,” Dr Ziffer said.