After a 10-year career with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the closest thing to normal for Dr Tonia Marquardt was working in a remote Aboriginal community and taking to the skies with the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS). Dr Marquardt received the 2012 Rural Registrar of the Year award. Here she shares her winding path to general practice and describes how her mentor, Dr Jane Barry, helped to keep her grounded.
Dr Tonia Marquardt
After 10 years with MSF, working in places like Nigeria, Kenya and Yemen, I wanted to settle back into Australia, but I knew it was going to be difficult to work in standard general practice.
I decided on rural and remote medicine with the Remote Vocational Training Scheme (RVTS), a distance education program for doctors who work and train in isolated communities.
I was having coffee with Dr Jane Barry, a Cairns GP, and I mentioned joining the training scheme. Jane said, “If you need a supervisor, I’d be interested“. Jane has so much GP experience, a strong interest in women’s health (as I do), and has worked in Aboriginal communities in clinical and management roles. I was really happy to have her as my supervisor.
I started with the RFDS in 2010. The role included regular work in Kowanyama, an Indigenous community of around 1500 people about 600 km from Cairns. I would fly up each week and stay for 2–4 days.
After finishing my training, I was appointed senior medical officer for primary health care with the RFDS Queensland section, overseeing 12 clinics around Cape York and to the west. The clinic load is a mix between what you see in an emergency department and general practice work. You have to be able to do a bit of everything. Half of my time is clinical work with a couple of retrieval shifts and the other half is management.
My MSF work was mostly tropical medicine and people were acutely sick. You gave them something and saw them get better quite quickly, whereas here it’s mostly chronic disease and things that develop over time. It is much more complex to build a clear picture with multiple things going on and multiple possibilities.
I still remember Jane assuring me that I could take my time — I didn’t need to have all the answers straight away or to fix everything on the spot.
What impresses me about Jane is her calmness. She’s a grounded person who radiates confidence, ability and knowledge. We are around the same age but have gained experience from different areas so I have been able to draw from her expertise. We’ve also developed a great friendship.
I laugh when I think of how we began our supervision. We’d been doing weekly tutorials, often by phone from Kowanyama, covering topics set out by the training program. When we went to the first national RVTS meeting, we quickly realised that no one else had even started and we were already half way through the curriculum. We were nerds! We relaxed a bit after that.
It was a surprise to be awarded the 2012 Rural Registrar of the Year by the Rural Doctors Association of Australia and the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine. It’s surreal to be acknowledged for doing rewarding work that I enjoy.
Whenever I’m on the water outrigging or flying over the reefs and the Cape, I think of how lucky I am. It’s such a beautiful and amazing part of Australia to live and work in.
Dr Jane Barry
Tonia and I are a similar age — in fact she graduated before me — and we quickly became friends, so it was an interesting scenario being her supervisor.
Tonia had a wealth of experience but mostly in a different environment. I’ve helped her put things into the context of mainstream general practice, but otherwise she is highly capable of sorting a lot of it out herself. She’s been an easy person to supervise. It has been more of a partnership with guidance than supervision.
Tonia doesn’t see herself as being anything outside of ordinary when, in fact, she is well outside the ordinary. Tonia has devoted many years to helping people. She’s very humble and that’s something I admire about her, and she wouldn’t be aware of that.
I was really pleased when she won her award. She deserves it. It’s great for her, great for the RFDS and great for the training scheme. Tonia is a wonderful spokesperson for these organisations because she’s inspiring.
Tonia’s career has shown that medicine is what you make it, especially if you have the courage to step outside the boundaries set by the profession. She didn’t feel the need to get fellowships under her belt before she did anything else, so she’s been able to take opportunities and run with them.
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