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Life and medicine in the Burdekin

15th April 2021

Fishing, family, cane fires and fast-paced clinical work: that’s what Dr Ben Lawry calls paradise. Dr Lawry is the medical superintendent at the Ayr Hospital and JCU GP supervisor. He made the decision to set down roots in the Burdekin early in his career.

He knew deep down rural medicine was for him after graduating from JCU. While interning at the Townsville Hospital he experienced a number of specialties and discovered he loved the variety Rural Generalism offered.

 “I wanted to do everything and found that if I did a specialty, I'd probably be bored and looking for the next challenge,” Dr Lawry said.

 “I discussed with Townsville Hospital what I needed to do to move forward to work in a rural community. At the same time, I found my wife, who was from this region. So it was pretty early on that we were destined to come back to Ayr.”

 After completing advanced skills in anaesthetics and obstetrics he relocated to Ayr to continue his training on the Rural Generalist Pathway.

 Reflecting on his early days at Ayr Hospital with only four doctors working the wards and on-call roster, he said life was very different.

 “We were working 13-day fortnights. We started at eight in the morning and got home at five the next day. I did every second night on call, for three years,” he said.

 “Back then we were doing 200 births a year and now we are down to doing 100 births a year. You would have a Sunday off, but be on call for obstetrics. You would get the call-up and spend the whole day delivering someone's baby.

 “There were times I didn't see my family for a week. And then the one day you’d get off you're too tired to do anything with them.

 “So I learnt early on, that life in the Ayr Hospital was pretty tough. To make it better and get a really good work-life balance, we needed to have more staff.  In order to have more staff, we had to train our own. We needed to grow our own. So I progress from being a new Fellow into then supervising and medical education.”

 Dr Lawry has made it his mission over the past seven years to build a roster of well-trained rural doctors to care for the Burdekin community. He supervises approximately 24 JCU Medicine students a year and so far has trained 22 GP registrars, seven of whom have stayed on to work in the community. Of all the doctors on staff at Ayr Hospital, 14 are JCU Medicine graduates.

 “It's been challenging to supervise multiple new doctors with different personalities and different learning needs. People with varying ideas of what they want to do within this hospital has been very challenging. But it's also been very rewarding. I'm very proud of it, as are my other senior colleagues who've helped out along the way.”

 Even though Dr Lawry’s work life has become a little easier with extra staff, he says it’s still full of exciting challenges.

 “Some weeks, I think that I'm coming in, and we're well staffed, and I'll be doing some paperwork and doing some teaching, maybe doing a little bit of time and ED, perhaps going over to Home Hill to see some of my patients in the clinic at the hospital, but then it turns on its head. I might have someone calls in sick or there's an issue in another hospital where I have to go and help out,” he said.

 “I could come into my practice and say ‘I'm just going to do a clinic in the morning’, next minute I'm helping out in theatre doing a very tricky caesarean section with one of my juniors, or assisting someone in a very difficult anaesthetic, right the way through to me helping run a resus in ED and overseeing that.

 “So no two weeks are the same and that's what appeals to me. That's what keeps me going here.”

 An important ingredient for a fulfilling career in rural medicine is the relationships you build in the community. Dr Lawry said his connection to the people of the Burdekin made his career that much more rewarding.

 “There are multiple moments here that confirmed in my mind that this is the place I want to be. I’ve delivered all three of my neighbour’s babies in the eight years we’ve lived next door.

 “One of the local guys, built his own helicopter and had been flying for 15 years and one afternoon, he crashed. He came in really, really banged up. We managed to resuscitate him and get him back and then we sent him through the Townsville hospital.

 “Two weeks later, he's back with us, we've rehabbed him. He's now back at home, no longer building helicopters. Now he seeks me out to be his GP, I see him for his blood pressure checks. That's pretty special, to be able to have that much of impact on the community.”

 Dr Lawry is a firm believer in making sure you have a life outside of the hospital, something he stresses to his registrars.

 “Most weekends for my family and for the medical family here, we try to get people out to the beach with us. Alva Beach is 32 kilometres long, so we go on the quad bikes, we go out there fishing and camping. On really good days when there's nice weather we duck out to the reef.

 “Reef fishing for me has become one of my biggest pastimes, my boat is my sanctuary. The place I get to truly switch off. I’ve certainly passed it on to a few of my staff and so we tend to share that with them and try to get them out in the water as much as we possibly can.”

 Dr Lawry says if you are looking for a career with variety, connection and a fantastic lifestyle, rural medicine is where it’s at.

 “I think the biggest thing I'll say to anyone thinking about doing rural medicine, it's not so much the medicine, and don’t get me wrong the medicine is great… but it's the lifestyle,” he said.

 “The fact that I can drive a couple of minutes to work and only have one roundabout to contend with. The fact that I've structured our day here so we have an hour lunch break. At lunchtime I go home and I sit with my wife and my kids. I'll finish work at five o'clock in the afternoon. I'm home by two past five.

 “If you want to go to the beach and walk the dog or go for fish, you can without having to commute for hours.

 “I think that's probably the biggest drawcard, the lifestyle. That, to me, is the main reason I'd practise rurally. That's certainly why I tell my guys you can actually have a very good lifestyle as well as practising very interesting medicine.”

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