Caroline Macari shares her experience with grief and explains how it has helped her become a better doctor and CareFlight’s ambassador for mental health.

I’ve worked as a doctor for almost 17 years and five of those years have been as an Aeromedical Specialist for CareFlight where I also head up the Mental Health and Wellbeing Team.

After recently attending and presenting at The Frontline Mental Health Conference, CareFlight asked me to share my story – a story of how my brother’s death created a career path I could never have foreseen. And whilst being the worst thing to ever happen to me, his death has given me direction and purpose and changed my life for the better.

My older brother, Martin, was like any other older brother. He tormented me with tickles, gave me killer Chinese burns, and once, even handcuffed me to a chair. He was a high-level sports player, never smoked and didn’t drink any alcohol. Being the stubborn guy that he was, he managed to develop a very rare and aggressive form of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, which progressed no matter what was thrown at it. Over a year of drama, delays to diagnosis of spread and failing treatments, he withered away. Eventually he was barely able to speak or walk, an eye patch keeping his new squint at bay, but he carried on fighting until he became so tired he welcomed death.

The day after he lost his battle, I went to work. And I didn’t tell anyone. Work gave me purpose and I felt I was surrounded by my Australian family. The next day, I was found crying in an ambulance bay and forcibly sent home. I did eventually ask for five days off to fly home for the funeral, but then I was back at work because, as health professionals, that’s what we do. We just carry on.

At work it became very easy for me to get too involved in my patients’ care. Suddenly I knew the agony they were going through. I became too invested, but this just meant my grief was constant and ongoing.
I developed life-altering anxiety and lived in an exhausted, elevated state, unable to ever come down or relax.

I could no longer deal with the usual stresses of work, but I carried on regardless. Eventually I had to ask for help. The whole event broke me down, but as Oprah would say, it also broke me open.  I spent over a year trying to build myself back up, learning amazing life lessons and skills to help others along the way. I attended courses in grief management and debrief/psychology first aid, plus mentoring and supervision courses. To help me survive this new life, I was forced to find out what makes me happy and what gives me purpose. I discovered that helping others through their toughest times is what brings me joy.

For a long time, I struggled with how I could use these new skills to begin tackling the issues I could see in various workplaces. CareFlight has always been like a family to me and has always embraced me with kindness. Therefore, it came as no surprise that it was CareFlight who gave me the opportunity to follow my heart. A year ago, the call went out to create a Mental Health and Wellbeing team. My hand was instantly up. I was also invited to join a ‘People and Culture’ group which works towards creating a positive workplace through personalised career building. At the same time, I also became a mentor to junior staff.

Over the last year, our team at CareFlight has introduced many initiatives to improve the health and mental wellbeing of our staff. Some of these initiatives include, providing “Managing for Staff Wellbeing” training for managers, increasing access to our employee assistance program, providing webinars on self-help as well as providing psychological first aid training to key members who can act as peer support. The exciting part is that we’ve only just begun and many more new initiatives will be announced this year.

By telling my story I want to help reduce some of the stigma associated with speaking up. I want to create an environment where others feel safe to do so too. Only last month, a friend of mine tragically committed suicide. If only we lived in a world where he felt he could say: ‘I’m in pain, please help me’.

I hope that one day we will.

Knowing that my brother’s death has resulted in positive change across the world gives our family strength. His friends also set up a charity in his name in Scotland, providing children with access to sport who otherwise wouldn’t have had access. I like to think that wherever he is watching from, he is able to see the impact his life and death have made.