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From ward to world

Post date: 27/10/2017 | Time to read article: 4 mins

The information within this article was correct at the time of publishing. Last updated 14/11/2018

Dr Robert Molloy reflects on his time working as a young doctor in Christchurch, New Zealand. When an earthquake struck, his year abroad took a very different turn.

I was firmly undecided about career choices as I neared the end of my foundation year jobs. I had actually applied for Core Medical Training but withdrew my application the day before my interview as I wasn’t sure it was for me. I wanted adventure. At that point in my training I wasn’t ready to commit to at least another two years of rotations in the UK, so instead I opted for what has now become the ‘F3’ year.

I applied through a locum agency in New Zealand that had been recommended and sent all of my paperwork to them. This was 2010 and the mass exodus of doctors to the antipodes was only just getting started. Without as much as a telephone interview I was offered five jobs across New Zealand in various hospitals. I eventually opted for Christchurch, based purely on its proximity to the beach and the mountains. About 10 months after starting applications I landed in New Zealand to start work.

Work in Christchurch’s Emergency Department was great, but to be honest, not very different from being at home. In fact, many of the department’s doctors were British. I loved the consultant support and on the job teaching. I felt free to work up patients to a much greater extent than back at home, rather than doing everything to the four hour clock. During my time there I was encouraged to do as much as possible before referring to inpatient teams – intubating in resus, reducing dislocated joints and performing lumbar punctures to investigate subarachnoid haemorrhages. It was all very rewarding and brought a shy young doctor out of his shell.

Kiwi patients are a tough bunch, whose casual understatement of often quite serious medical problems always made me smile. On one shift I saw a 96-yearold with chest pain. “What were you doing when your chest pain came on?” I asked. He said: “I was out chain-sawing.” One man presented a day late into a stroke as he wanted to finish clearing his garden. Of course, New Zealand sporting traditions dictate that Saturday and Sunday afternoons should be dedicated to a seemingly endless list of rugby injuries – I gained lots of experience in pulling shoulders and clearing c-spines.

Life outside of work was wonderful. Life in New Zealand is definitely about living and not working. With the local and ex-pat doctors I surfed, cycled and kayaked in every spare moment. If you haven’t been to New Zealand, then I’m sorry, but you’ve really let yourself down – it is easily one of the most beautiful places on earth. I’d be lying if I said I was a hero when 12.51 on 22 February 2011 came around. Many of my friends and colleagues certainly were heroes that day. I was actually on holiday near Lake Taupo when Christchurch was hit by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake. It killed 185 people and injured many more. I returned to a city in shock and ruin the next day. Following the day of the earthquake itself, the hospital became eerily quiet as the city evacuated. Extra personnel volunteered to work extra shifts over the next few days, anticipating numerous injuries to present as the rescue effort went on. They were not needed – no one came from the rubble alive after the first 24 hours.

The next few weeks were scary and sad. Dozens of junior doctors and I moved into a building the hospital had commandeered nearby as the roads out to our homes were badly damaged. The earthquake had however, brought out the best in the community – showing their resilience and their kindness. Locals sent food to the emergency department so that the staff wouldn’t go hungry. Drivers would stop as you walked home to offer a lift to make sure you got home safe. A few afternoons after the earthquake I watched a lady drive up to the military cordon around the most damaged part of the city centre; the soldier politely turning her away. She’d had no intention of passing through; instead she passed a flask of tea and box of sandwiches from her window to keep the soldiers going and turned around. I forget how many hundreds of aftershocks we endured over the weeks and months that followed, but watching the people of Christchurch come together through all of it was one of the most life-affirming things I have experienced.

It wasn’t the year I had set out to have, but I loved life in New Zealand all the same and made some great friends. I still feel that working at Christchurch Emergency Department was one of the best, most satisfying jobs I’ve ever had. It made me a better doctor and definitely made me a more confident person, but, if anything, working away had made me even more indecisive about my career plans. I’d learnt that career plans weren’t as important as I’d thought they were. The one thing I was sure of was that I wanted more time to travel and work overseas.

In the end there were a couple of reasons I came home. For starters, New Zealand is a really long way away and it’s hard work being in a relationship where the other person is almost exactly on the other side of the planet. (We’re getting married next year, so I think I probably made the right decision to come back). Also, Skype doesn’t quite cut it when a family member is unwell and you want to be next to them. I also wanted to keep going – to keep travelling and working in new places. I wasn’t sure I would have that opportunity from New Zealand. Since leaving I’ve worked back in the UK, volunteered in some of the remotest parts of Zambia and helped at a clinic in East Timor – stories for another occasion perhaps.

If in doubt, go. Do it. Take the step, apply for a job and see where it takes you. 

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