The long road to Nhulunbuy

Debbie Gillon - Graduation

It’s been a long road to Nhulunbuy in East Arnhem Land for Northern Territory Medical Program (NTMP) graduate Debbie Gillon, but she finally made it. Despite wanting to be a nurse in high school, her life has taken many twists and turns including finishing school in year 10, having children young and supporting her husband’s career.

Finding herself unsettled when her youngest children went to high school, Debbie started looking for something more in life. She was aware of the NTMP and wondered if university was an option for her. However, you need to crawl before you can walk, so she undertook the Tertiary Enabling Program (TEP) through Charles Darwin University (CDU). Completing TEP highlighted to Debbie that she enjoyed and had the aptitude for formal study. As a result, she commenced studying Biomedical Science which ultimately led to her dream of studying Medicine.

Life intervened when Debbie, her husband and children moved to India to live and work in the slums of Mumbai prosecuting sex trafficking syndicates and rehabilitating victims. During this time she needed to keep the dream alive so she changed degrees to something that could easily be studied externally, opting for a Nursing and Applied Science double degree which allowed her to keep all of her science units.

During the last year of her double degree she sat the Graduate Australian Medical School Admissions Test (GAMSAT) and applied to undertake Medicine at Flinders NT thinking that it would take more than just one application to be accepted. This proved to be incorrect. She was successful and withdrew from her nursing graduate program in order to commence Medicine with Flinders University, Darwin.

Debbie says, ‘I had an average GAMSAT but a high Grade Point Average (GPA). It was definitely advantageous being a mature-aged student embarking on the university journey because I knew how I learned best. However, when it came to Medicine, it didn’t really help because it was such an avalanche of knowledge. I went from being one of the top nursing students who was the first to get into the research program at CDU, to going into medicine and feeling like the least intelligent person there! What really got me by was my life skills and hard work.’

While originally from Melbourne, Debbie and her family had moved to Darwin in the mid 1990’s, so Darwin seemed the most appropriate place to study. Although her goal was to undertake Medicine in a rural setting, she was unable to engineer her way to Nhulunbuy during her clinical years. When she undertook a placement in Alice Springs during her third year (2016) it was cut short when she needed to return to Darwin to care for her grandson. Palmerston Super Clinic were fantastic and took her on as an extra student, so she was able to do afternoons and weekends. In this setting she didn’t see a lot of chronic medicine but mainly acute presentations.

Due to this sudden change in her family circumstances, Debbie was planning on taking a year off, but Dr Sheela Joseph advocated for her to continue. Mentally, Debbie approached the year as a practice year because she recognised the difficulty of being able to shuffle all her responsibilities – full time caring for a 14-month-old grandson, competing responsibilities with study and remote placements. So, by taking the pressure off herself mentally, and applying a consistent approach, her life skills really kicked in which managed to get her across the line, passing the barrier exam at the end of Year 3.

Now, fast forward to 2018 and she has finally made it to Nhulunbuy as an Intern at Gove District Hospital. She has successfully applied for Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine (ACRRM) and is hoping to get back to Nhulunbuy in 2020 to complete her Primary Rural and Remote Training.

‘It is fantastic out here. It is a hidden secret. The weather is so much better than Darwin, it is really community oriented and then in the Hospital, it is just what I want to do. I want to be a rural generalist. Seeing it here in Nhulunbuy is seeing it at its best’, Debbie says.

She went on to explain that the consistency with senior clinicians in Nhulunbuy is great; even the locums. There is now a permanent Fellow of the Australasian College of Emergency Medicine (FACEM). The permanency of the senior clinicians is so important. The knowledge around the registrar programs is immense.

‘People at the senior levels take the time to have those conversations with you. When I had my interview for the ACRRM program I was well advised and had a clear direction to follow, so in a way, I was set up for success. All the doctors are approachable.

‘I have never felt like I am just the intern here in Nhulunbuy, not once. I know my position and I feel like a valued member of the team with a role and responsibilities.

‘My inspiration, because everyone needs inspiration, was my personal family GP in Melbourne, Dr John Fotakis. Over the years I observed him build meaningful relationships with all his patients. I would like to emulate his care, compassion and skill.’ says Debbie.

Finally, Debbie reinforced the privilege of working amongst the Yolŋu population in East Arnhem Land. ‘It felt collaborative and the people are truly amazing.

‘It has been a long and sometimes difficult road, but when I return to Nhulunbuy, hopefully in 2020, I will feel satisfied with my achievements. I am doing what I was always meant to do – help people heal’.

Debbie Gillon - Long road to Nhulunbuy
The road to Nhulunbuy in East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory


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Flinders NT Flinders NT Medical Program (NTMP)