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Paediatrician’s long ride to her life’s work

Cate Swannell
Med J Aust
Published online: 20 August 2021

DR Laila Ibrahim had no intention of becoming a doctor. She wanted to be a chemical engineer.

That all changed when the Malaysian government offered her a scholarship to study medicine in Dublin, Ireland, about as far from her Kuala Lumpur home as it is possible to get, both geographically and culturally.

“I thought, why not?” Dr Ibrahim tells the MJA.

Going from thinking about engineering to being in the middle of a 5-year medical course in one of the more rambunctiously Catholic countries on the other side of the planet would have been an adjustment for any Muslim 19-year-old.

“It was definitely the best time of my life being away from home for the first time. I felt so very welcomed by the warm Irish hospitality and witty humour and made life-long Irish friends. It was a very fun time, and an eye-opener.”

For a start, Dr Ibrahim discovered after being a top student in Malaysia, she didn’t excel at university.

“I realised that I wasn't very good at learning from lectures and books, so college was a challenge,” she says. “I didn't excel at college.

“One of the things I would want to emphasise is that just because you don't excel in college and medical school, doesn't mean that you wont be a great clinician, researcher, academic or all of the above.”

Five years in medical school turned into a total of 12 years in Ireland while Dr Ibrahim completed her paediatrics training. And then one night, in front of the television with her husband, also a paediatrician, a decision was made.

“Ireland is a fabulous place. It was my home, but it can be gloomy sometimes,” she says.

“It was one of those dark, really miserable cold winters. We saw an ad on television about Melbourne being the world’s most livable city. I turned to my husband and said, ‘we need to go there’.”

At first they thought Melbourne would be a stopover on their way back to Malaysia, but after arriving in 2012, the Victorian capital won them over.

“Career-wise I found my way,” says Dr Ibrahim.

Her first six months were spent doing general paediatrics at the Sunshine Hospital in Melbourne’s north-west before a move to the Royal Children’s Hospital led her to a revelation – the Hospital-in-the-Home program led by Associate Professor Penelope Bryant.

“I got to treat children in their homes, in their own beds. I would be the doctor who visited children at home – children who needed hospital level care,” she says.

“And I thought this is it – this was what I was going to pursue for the rest of my life.”

These days Dr Ibrahim spends half her time as a clinical paediatrician, treating children with an array of medical issues, but her particular interest remains treating children in their homes.

“I am literally the doctor who walks around the hospital asking ‘can this child go home and have care at home?’,” she says.

Developmental behavioural paediatrics is also a passion.

“What I like to do is empower families to see their child not just as the child with the illness, but also as their beautiful child otherwise. That is something I love doing.”

Dr Ibrahim’s other life is as a researcher.

“The overarching message [of my research] again, is how can we get kids out of hospital? My PhD was about showing how homecare is as good as hospital care for kids who need intravenous antibiotics.

“We're doing one infection at a time. Before it was a serious skin infections, and now I'm looking at urinary tract infections.

“Quality of life for children and their families is better outside of hospital. It's also safer in terms of reducing the risk of hospital acquired infections, which is much more important today in the COVID-19 world.

“We get to empower families to look after their kids,” she says.

“We also showed that it's actually cost-effective for the hospital, but also three times cheaper for families [to care for children in the home] because there's less time off work.”

Put in front of a roomful of goal-oriented medical students or doctors-in-training, Dr Ibrahim would have a very simple message for them.

“Medical students are always thinking of this end goal, whatever the end goal is, and what I would say is – there is no end goal. You’re running towards a goal post that is always moving,” she says.

“You're always going to be chasing something in this career. You've got to stop and look around and appreciate where you are at each stage. Unfortunately, that can take quite a while to realise.

“Work-life balance is really important.” She and her husband have three sons, aged 3, 5 and 11.

 “Golden opportunities will present themselves to you, and you might not recognise it. You might think, ‘why would I want to do that?’

“Recognising those golden nuggets that come your way, and especially trust the people whose vision you trust. Say yes to a lot of things.”

“Find a mentor that fits you.” Mentorship has been crucial to Dr Ibrahim’s career and she is paying that back.

“I've had such great mentors who have been inspirational like Franz Babl, the Head of Emergency Research at Murdoch Children’s Research Insitute and Penelope, both previously my PhD supervisors,” she says. “My mentors inspire me to dream bigger and do better.”

“I especially like to mentor women or people with young children. It is possible to have a young family and have a successful career.”

Published in this issue of the MJA, Dr Ibrahim is lead author of research looking at the characteristics of SARS-CoV-2-positive children who presented to Australian hospitals during 2020 (1).

  • Cate Swannell


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