Flinders Northern Territory Medical Program student Claire Maree O’Bryan wasn’t really sure what to expect when, as a first year student, she signed up for a six-month placement in Nhulunbuy to be undertaken in her third year.
‘It seemed like I blinked and my first and second years were over and I was aboard the plane to my new home and first clinical placement. ‘Breathtaking is the word that came to mind as we descended into the Nhulunbuy airport’, says Claire Maree.
Claire Maree’s first weekend was spent settling into her accommodation and exploring locally, and by Monday she was being orientated to the hospital and the impeccable Flinders building that was at her disposal. On the medical front, the clinicians included a group of knowledgeable and experienced rural generalists and general practitioners with extra training in their preferred subspecialty. ‘Every staff member I encountered, be they doctor, nurse, cook, cleaner or clerk, was friendly and welcoming. ‘As a student I always felt like a valued member of the team and my interactions with the doctors culminated in rich learning opportunities’, she reflects.
Claire Maree’s most memorable experiences during her placement include accompanying CareFlight for patient retrievals and transfer to Royal Darwin Hospital, as well as some experiences that came after the global COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing. ‘I was fortunate to be onboard two flights with CareFlight in which I experienced the rawness of providing medical care in an extreme environment. Fortunately, the patients onboard at the time were not gravely ill and our role was more to monitor and provide timely transfer to tertiary level care. The level of coordination and logistical brilliance necessary for CareFlight to operate is mind-blowing’, she says.
Due to the biosecurity zone travel restrictions implemented for COVID-19, a general surgeon was sent to Nhulunbuy for weeks at a time to be the resident on-call surgeon and medical students were called upon to assist frequently. Claire Maree says, ‘I started off assisting with suturing wounds in the Emergency Department under their guidance. ‘Next, I was in theatre assisting with laparoscopic cholecystectomies and other procedures like complex skin excisions. ‘I was able to gain and practice skills that many peers would not have experienced at our level’.
A few weeks before she returned to Darwin, something truly iconic of the Top End happened. A patient who was attacked by a crocodile transferred to Gove District Hospital. The patient was stable enough that a direct transfer to Darwin was not required. The patient’s wounds were washed out in theatre, and Claire Maree along with another medical student were front and centre. ‘It’s not every day you can say you saw a croc bite wound, let alone assisted the wash out in theatre’, she says.
Going on a remote placement might seem daunting but taking a leap of faith is much more rewarding than the initial fear. I experienced much more than I could have imagined and for this I am so thankful. I cannot wait for the next adventure that medicine takes me on.