Adventures — 5 March 2023 at 10:00 am

Put your feet in the dirt, Girl

Dr Sonia Henry / General Practitioner / Rural & Remote Australia

Dr Sonia Henry is a General Practitioner who had been working in Sydney until a combination of personal events and the Covid-19 pandemic came crashing into her life. She found herself on an unexpected and completely off-the-beaten-track adventure into rural and remote Australian communities, where she was frequently the only doctor for hundreds of kilometres. Sonia has shared with us an extract from her book “Put your feet in the dirt, Girl” – an account of her time living and working in these communities (so far!). Here, she also reflects on the opportunities that a medical degree can provide to shape a life and career of your own, if you are brave enough to step out the door of the hospital systems and “put your feet in the dirt”.

Cover image of "Put your feet in the dirt, girl"

Use your stethoscope as a passport

I read somewhere that the great thing about being a doctor is that you can use your stethoscope as a passport to travel the world. I think I was a medical student at the time, and looking for any sliver of hope that after the hard years of slogging my way through there was something to look forward to at the end of it all. I found this article with the line about the stethoscopes and passports, and I never forgot it.

My pathway to medicine was slightly unconventional. After working for a few years as a physio I decided I wanted a different challenge so applied for medicine. After ten weeks of my first year of medical school I wasn’t too sure about it and deferred. I got a job working for an offshoot of the London ballet company as a physio but two days before I left I broke my arm on a ski trip in Australia. That rendered my ability to work pretty useless (a sports physio without a functioning arm is like a surgeon without functioning hands), and a few months later I was running out of money. Had I not broken my arm I might have ended up loving the work so much I may never have returned to Australia, or medicine, – who knows?

The moment that sealed the deal was when my arm had healed, and I decided to head to Zermatt to ski the famous Matterhorn glacier, the only place really that had any snow left to ski as it was autumn. Despite the stress of the self serve T-bar ski tows, I also found myself sharing a room at the backpackers with a Spanish doctor called Sara. She’d driven her van from Spain to Switzerland and was doing a mountain rescue course. She enlisted my help in editing a PowerPoint presentation to make sure any English words she wasn’t as sure of were ok, and invited me out with the course attendees for drinks. Hearing the story of her life as a doctor, working in mountains, remote Europe and Spain really captured my imagination. She was also extremely humble and very kind. For the first time- I had met a doctor who had the kind of life and personality that I genuinely liked and saw myself emulating. So, with a healed arm, an empty bank balance, and this renewed enthusiasm for medicine, I returned to Australia and the rest, as they say, is history.

Feel free to live the life you want to

Some of us in this world have a wandering spirit, and I’ve learnt it is actually ok to be the person that you want to be and live the life you choose to live. Sure, there have been times I’ve definitely run away from my life, but when the dust has settled I have realised that I genuinely enjoy my ‘peripatetic’ existence. As a GP, I can work anywhere and settle anywhere, which allows me great freedom.

I have been lucky that as well as being a GP I have also been able to pursue my childhood dream of becoming a published author. I have published two books, one a novel loosely based upon my intern year, and the other a memoir about living and working as a GP around very remote parts of Australia.

I think there is much to be said for working in new environments. It doesn’t only make you a better doctor, I think it makes you a better person. I have always been a strong believer in the adage that change is as good as a holiday, because it is only by immersing ourselves in different places and with different people that we learn not just the art of medicine but also humility and humanity. It is unbelievable to me that when I lived in Sydney I could not even conceptualise places like those that I have worked and lived in now. Humanity is, by virtue, a tapestry of differing experiences. To truly understand or at least try to understand other people, to walk in their shoes, develops great empathy and also in turn your own self development.

How do you ‘put your feet in the dirt’?

After qualifying as a GP, I found that there were many, many job options with a wide variety of locations and experiences. For other GPs or doctors looking to do something a little different, I’d recommend finding a good locum agency, and researching some areas you are interested in working within. Often that will involve a bit of up-skilling, but there are plenty of courses available depending upon your interests. There is a shortage of GPs in rural and remote Australia, so there is a surplus of opportunities. I would particularly recommend the Kimberley region of Western Australia, known for its beauty and incredible scenery. Here the work you can do in First Nations communities is not only incredibly interesting, but also opens your mind both medically and personally to how difficult life can be in remote Australia. It also illustrates great discrepancies between metropolitan and remote health access, and the gap in health outcomes for First Nations Australians. For me, after having lived and worked in the places I have, remote medicine and First Nations health is no longer a concept or a chapter in a textbook, but very much a reality. It is only by spending time living within these communities that you can become a genuine advocate for equitable access to healthcare in these remote areas of Australia.

To any doctors reading this who want to try something new, go off the beaten track, have an adventure- I can only encourage you. Who knows- one day you might even write a book about it.

Sonia and her dog

An extract from “Put your feet in the dirt, Girl”

My routine of swimming at Cable Beach is becoming slightly more stressful every morning. It seems that every day I see a another patient, usually a pearl diver, who has been stung by Irukandji, or wrestled sharks or spotted crocodiles – the big, scary ones, saltwater crocs.

‘I don’t think Irukandji really kill people,’ my pearl-diving patient tells me, ‘But (…) you want to want to avoid it if you can. I’ll never forget being stung by one of them. Got me on my finger. You can still see what it looks like.’

He shows me his thumb, which is deformed and permanently swollen.

‘I think it got infected or something,’ he says casually. ‘Anyway, that one was a few years ago. But it wasn’t really my thumb (…) that was so bad: it was the doom.’

I’ve read about this so have some idea of what he’s talking about. The toxin released by Irukandji jellyfish, creatures tinier than fingernails, has some neurotoxic effect that causes symptoms so severe and so bizarre there’s a name for it: ‘Irukandji syndrome’. The worst thing, my patient confirms, is the horrendous sense of impending doom. Apparently no one’s quite sure what causes this feeling, but it’s been suggested that the venom results in an uptake in adrenaline and noradrenaline, which are connected to anxiety.

‘That sounds absolutely horrendous,’ I say, feeling a little sick.

He nods at me. ‘I was crying on the phone to my Mum,’ he says. ‘It was so awful. I couldn’t stop crying. When they got me onto the beach they thought I was crawled up because of the pain, but it wasn’t that. It was just this sense that my whole world was collapsing.’

A few mornings later I come out of the water with a small, painful red lump on my leg. The water is warm, probably over 26 degrees, so I knew the Irukandji would be about and swam anyway. I’ve heard it takes about twenty minutes to determine whether it’s an Irukandji sting, so I head to the vinegar station, which is essentially just a seedy old bottle of vinegar near the surf club’s steps.

I don’t have a towel, so I use an old leaf I find on the sand to ineffectually rub vinegar onto my leg.

A man comes past, heading down the steps, and stops.

‘You right, mate?’

A typical Broome understatement, as we both know what it can mean if a person is throwing vinegar on themselves in a place like Cable Beach.

‘Guess I’ll know in about fifteen minutes,’ I tell him. ‘I’m ok now.’

Fifteen minutes later I’m still alive and haven’t started crying, so I put it down to sea lice and get ready for work. Another near-death experience narrowly avoided. If I were a cat, I’d be coming very close to nine up here.

From: put your feet in the dirt, girl by Dr Sonia Henry, published by Allen & Unwin in May 2023

Instagram: @sonnie_h
You can buy Sonia’s book here