By Naomi Abdallah, CareFlight Registrar
Every year CareFlight employs new registrars as part of its registrar training program with the Top End Medical Retrieval Service. In a first for the organisation, CareFlight’s new registrars are all women. I’m proud to be one of those women.
I write this as many working mothers do, in the middle of the night with a crying toddler on my lap trying to squeeze a bit of extra “mummy time” out of our day before we all head back off to work and daycare in the morning. It’s been a long road, approximately nine years of study, three degrees and now eight years of on the job training (punctuated with a bit of time off for maternity leave) to my current and most exciting job of my life, working for CareFlight as a new retrieval registrar up in the Top End.
Overall, the ranks of female medical graduates are swelling and that’s fantastic. In February 2019, there was one female in the group of nine new registrars starting their six-month rotation with CareFlight. A year later, we’re all women. We’ve previously worked in Emergency Departments, Anaesthetics and Intensive Care Units all over the world including in Australia, Ireland, the UK, Africa and Denmark. For the next six months, we’ll be caring for the critically ill and injured in pre-hospital and inter-hospital aeromedical retrieval environments as well as in rural and remote locations across the Top End.
It’s only the beginning of my journey in the enticing world of aeromedical retrieval but it’s something I have been inspired to do since my junior doctor days chatting to semi-retired anesthetists about their days pioneering the retrieval space in Australia and then meeting some incredibly hardcore female retrieval doctors that were also mothers and specialists proving anything is possible.
I didn’t always know I wanted to be a doctor, but it comes down to a love of people and a love of the challenge of solving problems. After I left school, I worked in an aquarium selling ornamental fish and troubleshooting people’s fish tank problems. I studied marine biology with plans to become a vet and as most young people do, went travelling and soul searching. It was then I realised just how much the vast inequities in the world disturbed me, and I wanted to be part of the solution.
I studied medicine at Wollongong University as the “guinea pig” first cohort through and was told the schools mission was to make us all rural and remote doctors. I didn’t realise back then how much I loved rural and remote medicine and in contrast, I started my training in a busy trauma hospital in an underprivileged part of southwestern Sydney. Here, I developed a love of caring for critically unwell people who had often been in accidents and were bought by helicopter retrieval teams to our major trauma centre.
I have long been passionate about remote medicine in the low resource setting and working with people who have minimal access to health care. This prompted a few trips to work on various medical clinics in Latin America and as an expedition doctor in Africa in my early doctor days. My first “retrieval job” was taking a team on a tiny boat and a couple of boxes of medical supplies to remote Indigenous island communities in Panama where we often camped overnight swatting away mozzies whilst sleeping in hammocks.
As a medical student I volunteered with an inspiring team of doctors who took surgery to remote parts of the Andes mountains with a mobile van set up as an operating theatre, hours from the nearest hospital, where we would work around the clock to service dozens of people’s ailments on any given weekend.
I also spent time as a medical student in Darwin and was captivated by the rich Indigenous culture, the gaps in healthcare and the incredible landscape I had the privilege of viewing from above on a clinic trip to Arnhem land almost 10 years ago. Darwin and the entire Northern Territory is a special place in that there is so much disparity in access to health care and such great distances to travel that an organisation like CareFlight makes an incredible difference to the lives of people that would otherwise be stuck with terrible ailments travelling days by car or simply not survive due to the barriers of distance and geography. Challenges of poverty, language and cultural barriers are similar to where I have worked before however for Australia are the most pronounced in the NT. The big difference to the mobile clinics I have worked in before, is being able to deliver sometimes much sicker patients to gold standard tertiary hospital care within a relatively short flight, providing lifesaving treatment enroute. I am humbled to have the privilege to work in this space.
It’s all incredibly rewarding and exciting work but working in retrieval as a mother of a two-year-old boy is not without its challenges. Retrieval is erratic shifts and sometimes long hours and as I am also studying for my emergency specialist exams it’s tricky to balance time. I have an incredibly supportive and understanding husband and I wouldn’t be able to manage without him. He picks up the pieces after a long shift, makes sure our son is fed, loved and clean after he’s also worked a full day’s work and to him I am incredibly grateful.
I am also by no means the first mother to work here and my network of more inspiring retrieval doctors and nurses who are also parents and friends is something I am incredibly grateful for.
It’s tough spending time away from my family and the mum guilt is pretty real but it’s also amazing to see how impressed my two-year-old is when I come home and tell him stories of “helping sick people” out of broken cars and taking them to hospital in helicopters. He’d possibly be less impressed if it wasn’t for the helicopter, but I also feel and hope that seeing his parents split the child caring role and watching his mum be winched out of a helicopter will help challenge the gender stereotypes that still permeate our culture. I hope he sees that mummies have day jobs too and that being a boy means you can be successful if you’re an awesome stay at home dad or a helicopter pilot. It’s also awesome to see the look on kids’ faces, especially little girls, when they see their doctor is also a girl.
It’s only the beginning of my time at CareFlight but so far I have loved every moment and I am excited to learn and work in this inspiring environment and with CareFlight’s incredible team.