”I’m visiting Bronwyn on my way home,” said the nurse. “Her face was massively swollen when I saw her yesterday. She won’t leave the house to come to the clinic.”
“I’ll come with you,” I said.
Bronwyn was kicked by her husband’s steel-capped boots. I felt a break under her swollen cheek. Her spine was tender.
“We’ve got to get you to hospital for an X-ray,” I said.
“I can’t go,” Bronwyn said through swollen lips. “I’m too embarrassed, to see people.”
Claudia drove Bronwyn, her sister and Bronwyn’s newborn baby 700km to the hospital. She stayed there with them. After the X-ray found no fractures, Claudia phoned me. “She needs a CT,” she said. I faxed a request.
The CT found fractures all through Bronwyn’s face. Her eye socket was broken in four places, her cheek bone in three. Her jaw was broken and she had two fractured vertebrae. She had to fly interstate for facial surgery. “I’m scared. I don’t want to go,” she told Claudia.
“You have to go. You can’t chew properly. You can’t have your baby see your face like this,” Claudia told her.
In my intern year I was accepted into General Practice training, attracted by the warmth of the people and the flexibility it offered. I wanted to work with Aboriginal people and GPs are the doctors they see most. I was dreaming of the bush, too.
Claudia and I married in a civil union ceremony in New Zealand in 2007. I took a long weekend off work to do so.
I worked in hospitals for several years — in rehabilitation, palliative care and emergency — learning as much as I could. At home, Claudia cared for me lovingly.
Later, I went to work in Aboriginal Medical Services and other rural practices, enjoying the variety and continuity. I love asking patients to come back tomorrow or next season, to see how they’re going.
One day I was thrilled to meet a patient from my clan. But she never came back, fearing I was related to her family and that I’d breach confidentiality.
In my progression to working independently as a doctor, the exams imposed by the College of GPs were as tough as any I struggled with at University. But I did well in the General Practice OSCE. Examiners valued my holistic approach to patients. The Key Feature Problem exam (KFP) frustrated me, though. The exam required a medical answer to be expressed exactly as the examiner required. So, for example, if the answer was ‘cancer’ and you wrote ‘malignancy,’ you were incorrect.
For those of us working across cultures, translating medical language into plain English, this was irritating. I failed the KFP twice, by four points and then by one point six points. Similarly, I failed the multiple choice exam by less than two marks. Doctors working with me, excellent judges of my abilities, wrote letters of appeal to the College on my behalf, to no avail. The exams cost thousands of dollars in fees, study materials and lost work time. Even fruitlessly appealing their decisions (when I failed by less than one or two marks) cost over a thousand dollars. Eventually I passed them all, but exams and I will never be friends.
I live and work in Central Australia now, in the country the old men healers introduced me to. Claudia, a landscape photographer, reminds me daily of the beauty surrounding us. I help to save a life or three most weeks. Walking home from work, I hear the currawongs call. As orange and pink clouds streak the sky I think that if medicine has led me here, it was all worth it.