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Leading a Thursday Island life

Cate Swannell
Med J Aust
Published online: 14 February 2020

A RURAL generalist playing a ukulele in a Victorian emergency department was Dr Allison Hempenstall’s introduction to Thursday Island (TI) life and it was “mesmerising”.

“I went to Melbourne University and a metropolitan clinical school throughout my medical degree, so I had very minimal rural exposure,” Dr Hempenstall tells the MJA.

“I completed a rural rotation during my internship in rural Victoria and met a generalist there who would bring his ukulele into the emergency department where he would start playing .”

“It's not a typical instrument, the ukulele, so I asked him where he learnt to play it and he said he'd learnt in the Torres Strait, when he was working up there. I would talk to him about his experience up here, which was mesmerising.”

As a result, Dr Hempenstall went to Cairns the following year as a junior doctor precisely because she knew it would involve a 3-month placement on TI as the emergency medicine resident.

“I fell in love with the place and asked to come back and do my training here.”

So far, so good. In 2019, Dr Hempenstall was named the Rural Registrar of the Year by the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine and the Rural Doctors Association of Australia for her “dedication to healthcare provision in the Torres Straits and her commitment to public health”.

The variety of medical conditions and the beautiful scenery are just two reasons she has fallen in love with life on TI.

“It's a combination of so many things,” she says.

“I don't believe there is any other place in Australia where you will have such interesting medicine. You have the unique culture of the Torres Strait Islander people up here – a sea-ferry community that is very friendly and family orientated.”

“It's a beautiful culture to be a part of. The medicine is never dull with  communicable diseases like tuberculosis, leprosy, melioidosis and non-communicable diseases like diabetes, chronic kidney disease and ischemic heart disease. The amalgamation of the two is so interesting.”

“Not one day goes past when I haven't seen something absolutely fascinating.”

“We also treat Papua New Guinea nationals who travel in boats from their villages to access healthcare, as we are the only place in Australia that borders alongside another country.”

About 20 doctors live on TI, all of whom manage the 20-bed hospital, and 17 primary healthcare centres across the Torres Straits; servicing about 8000 residents.

Dr Hempenstall’s career path began with a biomedical science honours degree at Bond University on the Gold Coast.

“I didn't ever put the pressure on myself to get into medicine. I did a year of lab-based physiology and pharmacology research that made me realise that I could do this for the rest of my career and be very satisfied. But I didn't think it would push me beyond my comfort zone.”

“It was probably then that I decided to apply for medicine because it would be more challenging and allow me to interact with lots of different people instead of a career in a lab.”

She completed her MD at the University of Melbourne, her Diploma in Tropical Medicine in Tanzania and Uganda through the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – climbing Mt Kilimanjaro along the way – and later in 2020 will be taking up a year-long Fulbright Scholarship in the US to do her Master of Public Health.

“I'd hope to come back to the Torres Straits to complete my public health physician training. There is a huge need for a locally-based public team in the Torres and Cape.”

Dr Hempenstall’s advice to medical students and doctors-in-training is to keep an open mind to opportunities.

“There's this mentality, especially for medical students, to have your career path set in stone by the time you graduate medicine, to know what you want to do.”

“But you don't actually need to know what you want to specialise in.”

“Make sure you have a wide variety of amazing and different clinical experiences. Then you might find something that you never really would have otherwise considered and love it. That was the case for me.”

  • Cate Swannell


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