As a medical student, and even into my first year as a doctor, I often pondered whether I made the correct decision in entering medical school and giving up six years of my life studying. Would it be worth it? Would I find it an interesting and fulfilling career? As I faced the inevitable and regular financial problems inherent with being a poor student, I regularly compared myself to my cousin… he was a year older than me, and his marks in Year 12 had dictated that he did not go to university. Almost on a whim, he decided to become a plumber. Six years later, while I was living at home and worrying how I would get the money to buy the next tank of petrol, he had just built his third house and was now jet setting through Europe for six months of unbridled luxury. There were occasions when I really did wonder whether I had made the right choice.
After all, my reasons for entering medical school in the first place were sketchy at best. Throughout secondary school I had my sights firmly set on physiotherapy; I had visited many physiotherapists over the years for a variety of sporting injuries and could see myself cruising the world with the Australian Swimming Team, or becoming a physio for an AFL team (having obviously eliminated Collingwood as an option!). Then, while studying Biology in Year 12, my life changed when our class began to studying the human immune system and disease. I loved reading and learning about bacteria and viruses and the wily ways in which they outsmarted the human immune system. From the Black Death to Cholera to HIV; they may be single-celled organisms, but by God they were stealthy!
Coincidently, that very same month the blockbuster movie “Outbreak” was released at the cinemas. I watched Dustin Hoffman and Renee Ruso wearing spacesuits and chasing a monkey riddled with a virus that could destroy the population ofAmericawith a sense of awe. This was how I wanted to spend my life. I could visualise myself in a spacesuit chasing the Ebola virus inAfrica; curing AIDS in a top-secret laboratory and still having enough time left over before dinner to make vaccines for biological warfare.
Consequently, a few weeks after finishing Secondary School, I found myself sitting in an interview for medical selection.
“So Ben… Why do you want to study Medicine?” the inevitable question came.
“So I can wear a spacesuit and chase viruses inAfrica”, I replied without so much as a pause.
The three interviewers’ faces went through the seven stages of grieving at this very phrase. The initial surprise and shock was followed by bewilderment, anger (Was I taking the piss?) and finally humour. The three of them looked at each other and burst into laughter. Not the ideal response to my life passion, I thought to myself at the time, but in retrospect, it was probably a nice change from the 1999 other applicants who all answered with the inspiring line: “So I can help people”. Thus, I was accepted as a medical student.
After the initial euphoria, the doubts started creeping in. Wearing a spacesuit and chasing deadly viruses – although possibly enabling me to save the world from annihilation – was not a particularly robust reason giving up six years of your life. It was not as though I had a medical background either. No-one else in my entire extended family had ever done anything remotely medical. Essentially, I wondered whether I was cut out to be a health care practitioner.
It wasn’t until the end of my final year of medical study that I realised I belonged. As part of the final year curriculum, every medical student was required to complete an elective. This could be done in any area of medicine, anywhere in the world (and indeed you were encouraged to go overseas). It was, however, the responsibility of each student to organise and finance their own trip. Some students trekked to an isolated village in a third world country hoping to make a difference to the plight of a few; others boarded cruise liners and sailed the world doing “travel medicine”; some hit the high-profile tertiary hospitals in London or America to brown-nose Professors and further their careers. I had other ideas. I had only left Australia’s shores once in the past on an Australian sporting team… if I was going overseas, I was going somewhere decidedly first-world and preferably exotic!
Upon learning that the university did not cover the costs of the trip, my parents suggested that a close surrounding suburb was the obvious place to complete my elective, particularly from a financial point of view; a clinic that was preferably on the local train line would be ideal, my father postulated. I, however, had other ideas. I initially applied for and was accepted to practice in the Emergency Department at a major international hospital inBali. This may not have been the most sensible choice, being approximately three months after theBali bombings, and the University quickly refused my application. “The local GP it is then” I thought, admitting defeat.
Then, three weeks before I was due to complete my elective, I was given the name of the Clinical Director of the Liverpool Womens’ Hospital in theUK. I emailed him half-heartedly, knowing that my application was ridiculously late and being unable to afford a trip toEnglandeven if he was mad enough to offer me a position. That same day, Professor Farquharson replied to my email and informed me that he would love me to come toLiverpool, and if I could find my own accommodation he would be more than happy to be my supervisor.
To this day I still don’t know how I managed to gain University approval, financial backing from my parents (with promises to repay the loan quickly, be a better son in general and perhaps even help out with the dishes once in a while), apply for a passport and find accommodation in Liverpool in such a short space of time. But as I entered the Qantas plane and walked the near 2km to my seat in the very back row of the plane that clearly labelled me – in status terms – as below most people’s luggage, I was looking forward to a brilliant adventure.
Liverpool turned out to be absolutely amazing! Professor Farquharson was brilliant, emphasising to me upon my arrival that he saw the next six weeks of my life as “a vacation within a vocation”.
“Do what you want laddie!” he cried in a thick Scottish accent. “Come whenever you choose, you’ve access to the whole hospital. If anyone gives you a hard time let me know. But make sure you take plenty of days off to see the sights and get up to some mischief. Rest assured… whatever you do laddie, I’ll give you a great reference”. With that he burst into raucous laughter and slapped me on the shoulder so hard I was sure I would bruise.
I made some amazing friends during that elective that I still catch up with today. I saw, and fell in love with Liverpool and many of the surrounding areas. I never once tired of the Liverpudlians egging me on to yell “CRICKEY” in the spirit of the recently deceased crocodile hunter Steve Irwin, hundreds of times per day. I may not have been able to understand the locals, but by God they were a friendly bunch.
Six weeks later, as I arrived at Heathrow airport for the 25-hour journey home, I just couldn’t believe how quickly my time had gone.
Now, as any of my close friends will tell you, I attract drama. Within the hospital I am renowned as being a “shit magnet”… when Ben is on, you can guarantee the hospital will go on bypass, there will be an endless stream of medical emergencies and chaos will generally reign. Unfortunately, my airport experiences often mirror this character flaw.
It was not until I arrived at Heathrow airport and attempted to check in that I actually realised how much I had purchased in England. I was 25kg over the baggage allotment – largely made up of cheap souvenirs for relatives (in retrospect, hard-cover tourist guides were not the best idea for a present – and the attendant informed me it would cost £25 per kilogram… a total of £625 or over $1500 in excess baggage fees. As the colour drained from my face, the check-in attendant obviously took pity on me.
“Not to worry”, he said, “You’ve plenty of time to go through your luggage, throw out anything non-essential and pack your hand luggage”.
In the middle of Heathrow airport I unpacked and repacked my luggage several times, disposing of toiletries and old clothes and packing my carry-on backpack to its absolute capacity. When that didn’t work, I decided upon a different course of action and duly returned to the check in counter wearing (and I am not exaggerating)…. two coats, three woollen jumpers and five t-shirts. I looked like a blimp and in the 30-degree English summer I was sweating like a lawn sprinkler. Although I don’t think I fooled the check-in attendant for a second, the plan worked, and shaking his head – a look of sheer bewilderment on his face – he handed me my boarding pass and gave me the all clear to board.
The next challenge came as I attempted to pass through security. My backpack was filled to such an extent that the Xray machine was unable to penetrate it. Alarms sounded, red lights flashed around me and multiple security guards, armed to the teeth, exploded on to the scene and surrounded me. I was herded in to a small room and asked, amongst other things:
- Why I was wearing enough clothes to last an entire season in the middle of the English summer?
- Why my backpack weighed 30kg and was so dense an industrial Xray machine was unable to see through it?; and
- Which terrorist organisation was I working for?
Several apologies and a complete bag check later, Heathrow security seemed happy that I was not as major a terrorist threat as first feared and I was eventually let loose on to duty-free shopping.