I grew up hearing stories about the legendary Royal Flying Doctor Service. As a youngster growing up on an isolated property, my mother split her head open on the handle of a wool press and the flying doctors swooped in to save the day. Later, as a second year medical student, I took the opportunity to spend a day with the Broken Hill RFDS at a remote bush clinic and was so inspired by the combination of flying, medicine and outback that I was certain that that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. A couple of months ago, when I got the invitation to a family wedding in Broken Hill, my aunt (a nurse practitioner in nearby Menindee) suggested I ring up her mates at the RFDS base to see if I could get a couple of weeks of work while I was here. After a quick call to the SMO, my dates were booked, flights arranged and I was all ready to go. Now here I am spending my first locum gig in a town I’m really familiar with, in a job that I have idolised for many years and get to follow it all up with a big ol’ family reunion at the wedding. The perfect start to my locuming adventure.
My first impressions of the RFDS were really positive. The practice manager had everything really well organised before my arrival and one of the senior doctors met me at the airport for orientation and an invitation to dinner with his family. I was slightly concerned by his top tip which was “when you open the hangar door in the morning, look out for snakes in the hallway. We’ve had a few lately”. Hmmmmmm, ok!
Thankfully I’ve been rostered for clinic duties only and not expected to do any on call or retrievals while I’m here – just the thought of it scares the pants off me. Everyday I arrive at base at 7:15am, load the plane, fly to a remote clinic, see some patients, fly home. In some ways, it doesn’t feel like I’m working very hard. Typically I would see between 6 and 16 patients per day which is quite a change from the 30+ patients I would see in my city practice. My favourite day so far was a clinic in White Cliffs which involved a half hour morning tea break complete with fresh scones on arrival to the clinic, reviewing 8 patients, lunch supplied by local pub and then a bit of free time to check out the town and purchase some stunning local opals. Delightful! However, the early start, 3 or 4 hours of travel, the potentially very complex medical problems, the challenges of working in a new health system and going to a different place with different resources each day makes it all pretty exhausting. More about the challenges of remote medicine in a future post.
Some of my observations about living and working here:
- The people are generally very friendly and welcoming. A new person in town is a new friend and is automatically included in the social goings on. There seems to be an absence of clique-ness which is quite refreshing.
- Everyone knows everyone. As soon as I say that I’ve come for a family wedding, people can immediately place me in the context of being the lawyer’s cousin, the pharmacist’s cousin-in-law, the nurse’s niece etc.
- The landscape is beautiful. You can’t help but feel a little bit more in touch with the universe when the sky is so big and the stars are so bright. Flying to work every day and seeing it from above as well is particularly special.
- Most of the shops shut after 1pm on a Saturday, so don’t expect to spend the weekend engaging in retail therapy. You can get most of the things you need here, but there is no Vietnamese food in Broken Hill, which has led me to suffer severe beef pho withdrawals. Devastating! For everything else there is always internet shopping.
- I might have to revise my stance on daylight savings and for once agree that maybe life is better without it. Waking up in pitch black at 6:15am is rather unpleasant.
Overall my first locum stint has been an enjoyable experience in terms of work life and social life. Could I see myself living here? Definitely. There is a huge appeal in living somewhere nearby to family and the town itself has many attractions. Could I see myself doing this job in the long term? Maybe. It certainly has lots of variety and the opportunity to gain further experience in emergency, critical care and aboriginal health on top of the usual GP work. I also like the idea of working in a team environment with nurses, dentists, mental health workers, women’s health worker, pilots and support staff. However, at this stage in my career I think I need to maintain and consolidate my obstetric skills so that would be the obvious drawback. The local hospital is serviced by specialist O&Gs and there doesn’t seem to be any place for GP obstetrics at the moment but I suppose that could be explored in the future. In any case, the time here has given me a good starting point for my exploration and will be a pretty tough gig to follow.