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Rural experiences shape GP

11 October 2022

One of the first doctors to graduate from JCU, Dr Aileen Traves was a trail blazer in the rurally focused medical school’s early years.

“Moving to a newly established regional medical school from a capital city was the best decision ever for me,” the former Canberran says. “I had witnessed rural health care first-hand around the family farm on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, and realised this was a particular passion and interest.”

Being new to North Queensland, she was keen for every opportunity to see the region, and became the founding president of Club RHINO – Rural Health in the Northern Outback.

“I was lucky to have a John Flynn Scholarship with an incredible family in Katanning in Western Australia, and to win the first North Dakota Bursary which allowed me to spend time with the Kratcha family in North Dakota, USA,” Dr Traves says.

“These experiences shaped me and the type of doctor I would become. I thoroughly enjoyed my rural placements in Atherton and Mount Isa, and willingly put my hand up to join the rural GP training pathway.”

Dr Traves completed most of her postgraduate training in North Queensland, with intern and RMO positions at Cairns Hospital, GP training in Kuranda, Mareeba and Far North Queensland’s paediatric outreach team, extended skills in Aboriginal health in Kuranda, and then an academic post at JCU in 2011 looking into the graduate outcomes of the first cohort of JCU grads.

She accepted an academic position at JCU from 2012, as well as director and medical educator roles in postgraduate GP training. She completed a Master of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at JCU, a graduate certificate at Keele University UK in Health Professions Education: Accreditation and Assessment, and a Fellowship in Health Professions Education at the FAIMER Institute in Philadelphia, USA.

“Driving and flying all over Far North Queensland and the Cape and Torres with the paediatric outreach team has been a career highlight,” Dr Traves says. “In the future I do hope to get back to more rural and remote work, but providing GP services in a regional centre while the kids are small is a good compromise.”

Dr Traves, a Senior Lecturer in General Practice at JCU Cairns Clinical School, is a GP at Thrive Medical in Cairns North. “Working part-time in general practice has its challenges, but it enables me to continue to provide quality care while having a teaching and learning role at the University,” she says.

“I currently see a large number of Aboriginal patients as well as many patients who travel down from Kuranda and the Atherton Tablelands seeking continuity of care as I was their GP for a decade while working in Kuranda prior to moving to Cairns.

“I absolutely love getting to know families and the continuity of care being a GP provides through the ups and downs of life. It is an absolute privilege to be someone's trusted GP, and I particularly appreciate that opportunity as the GP for other doctors and health professionals who do have additional barriers when seeking health care.

"Living and working in regional and rural places has reinforced to me the importance of having your own GP. I am indebted to the GPs who have treated me with kindness and respect – I'm sure I am not the easiest patient!”

Dr Lynn Kratcha's enduring legacy

Dr Traves was the first recipient of what was then known as the North Dakota Rural Bursary, established by American doctor Lynn Kratcha. She is pictured above as a second-year JCU medical student receiving the prize from Dr Kratcha in 2001.

The award endures as the Lynn Kratcha Memorial Rural Bursary. The late Dr Kratcha undertook parts of his undergraduate and postgraduate training in NQ, and Aileen developed enduring friendships with the Kratcha family during her time in North Dakota and on return visits with her husband, Warren, as well as JCU's Prof Tarun Sen Gupta.

"Dr Kratcha came to Australia to listen to our presentations, and he was genuinely excited that evening to be with us. He was really looking forward to giving us the opportunity to come and see where he lived and worked and the sort of situation that was quite different to what many of us would experience working in rural Australia."

Dr Kratcha had a plaque made up in the shape of North Dakota for the prize. "That little star in the corner represents Langdon, which is where they lived, and Cavalier, where he worked. A little windmill he got put on to that was representative of rural Australia and also of rural America. So that was something that was really important to him, to see those synergies between our two countries and what was similar and, certainly for me, what was different as well."

Dr Traves did the placement in North Dakota in January and February of 2002, in the midst of the North American winter. "When I left North Queensland, it was 37 degrees. I remember, arriving in Winnipeg, it was also 37 degrees but 37 degrees minus."

Learning the art of being a great rural doctor

"Lynn and his wife, Jill, welcomed me into their home," Aileen says. "I went to stay with them in Landgon, which is a little town up in the north corner of North Dakota. They had a new little baby daughter called April, who was just celebrating her first birthday when I arrived. They had just adopted her so she had just arrived from China to come and live with them."

Aileen worked in the clinic in Langdon with Dr Kratcha and in the hospital at Cavalier, where he was on call for obstetrics and gynaecology. "He helped me learn the art of being a great rural doctor. I got to see exactly how much continuity of care actually meant to his family."

"I was really excited when, 10 years later, in the summer of 2012, we actually managed to go back and visit the Kratcha family. I was able to take my husband, Warren, back over to meet the family. I got to meet the Kratcha family's second daughter, whose name is Paige, and we got to celebrate her 10th birthday with them.

"I got to meet Lynn's father, Emery, who was by then living with them, and I had a very memorable swim in the local pool with April, who by then was 12. She was pretty good at swimming, but it was still freezing in summer.

"At that visit, I remember we talked a lot about patients who I remembered, and some of them had passed away or moved away. But a lot of them were still around and it was actually lovely 10 years later to go back and to catch up with him and find out what had happened to some of those people that I so clearly remembered. It was a fantastic opportunity for me to get to go back and to help him to know how much of an impact he made on my life.

"Unfortunately, he passed away about two and a half weeks after that trip."

Remembering Lynn

Aileen visited the Kratcha family again in 2014, along with her husband, Warren, and JCU lecturer and now colleague Prof Tarun Sen Gupta, two years after Dr Kratcha's death. 

"We went to a place called The Stables, which had been one of our favourite places to go out to eat. It was bittersweet to return to share a meal with the family without Dr Kratcha there, but he was certainly there with us in spirit. I think the most important thing that Dr Kratcha did for me was just having a chance to understand how much difference you do make an individual people's lives."

The Kratchas' daughters, April and Paige, are now both at university and working part-time jobs. April, 21, is studying psychology at Minnesota State University Moorhead. She graduates in December and plans to attend graduate school for counselling. Paige, 20, is in her second year at North Dakota State University, where she's studying biology.

Find out more about the adventure and lifestyle on offer through GP training.

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