Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Inspirational: Dr Susan Downes

I came across Dr Susan Downes' story as I was browsing the net this evening, searching for some career inspirations (as you do). She is a GP-Obstetrician who delivers services across a huge expanse of land in Western Australia (extending as far out as Christmas and the Cocos-Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean!!).

The following is an article that was featured in Medical Forum WA Magazine (April, 2006). I hope you enjoy reading about her story and find her work as inspiring as I do!

Multiskilled - Dr Susan Downes
Written by Mark Thornley
Saturday, 01 April 2006

They say the genes for multi-tasking, negotiating skills, spatial awareness and acceptance are carried on the X chromosome. Dr Susan Downes is living evidence of these inherent skills, plus more, having pursued a varied career in primary health care while raising three children. Her ability to thrive on diversity, adapt, and break down boundaries has positioned her as an every day pioneer in primary care. Susan was a wide-eyed epidemiology research assistant before she took up medicine at the age of 35. She has excelled since, undaunted by family trauma, and this year her remote GP work in the Pilbara and on Christmas and Cocos Islands earned her the General Practice Prize for Excellence in Population Health, conferred jointly by The Public Health Association of Australia and the RACGP.

Dr Susan Downes on her RFDS run

A self confessed travel junkie, Susan has always had a curiosity for new cultures.

"When in London I was working with many epidemiology doctors who inspired me with their stories of different countries and cultures. One in particular had worked in New Guinea and told me how he had to do a caesarean on a tribal chief's wife who had obstructed labour with twins."

"The tribe was cannibalistic and he was thinking, ?if this doesn't come off, I'm on the menu for dinner'. He'd never done it [a caesarean] before and was reading the medical book and was on the pedal radio trying to get instructions."

Flicking through an international medical journal and drooling over jobs for medicos in exotic locations, she decided to enrol in medicine as a mature age student.

Her actual medical career began as a family GP in Fremantle where her strong connection to people meant it was not long before she knew the names of her patients' budgerigars and was "burying their grandmothers".

The multicultural Fremantle mix of Greek, Italian and Portuguese provided a solid grounding for her transition to the Rural Women's Female GP Program that now sees her consulting Malay, Chinese and Muslim communities throughout Christmas and Cocos Islands.

"I felt I was becoming a bit narrow in the suburbs and just filling out forms and sending people off for blood tests. When you're out in the sticks you're doing everything yourself. You're reading your own x-rays, and doing your own bloods and ultrasounds."

She now incorporates Chinese medicine and Aboriginal bush medicine into her consulting, where she can. She thinks any GP who takes on a rural locum might regain some of their inspiration, especially away from bureaucratic hoops.

For example, she recalls one confronting incident on Christmas Island, which is so remote even the Royal Flying Doctor Service cannot attend patients unless they charter a special plane.

"We had a fracture-dislocation of the cervical spine. No plane could come and the paralysis was getting worse as we watched him. A community plane that used to go to Jakarta happened to be on the island so we took the seats out and a nurse and I got on with the patient and the pilots, and set out into the Never Never and flew to Perth via Learmouth in the dead of night. We really felt we weren't going to make it but eventually we got the patient there and he went into theatre straight away and is now walking."

Susan has been attending the health needs of adolescent Aboriginal women in the desert communities of the East Pilbara for five years. She visits these communities for 2-3 days every two months where she confronts sexually transmitted infections, unplanned teen pregnancies and cervical cancer.

To do this she must gain the trust and confidence of these shy groups of women, where she helps deliver education programs at medical centres, schools or even creek beds and swimming holes.

By preventing STIs, future infertility and its expensive solutions are greatly reduced. By encouraging pregnancy-free years, young Aboriginal women mature physically and mentally and attain higher levels of education.

Susan's involvement as Liaison GP at Woodside Maternity Hospital has ensured the hospital's status as the last inner suburban hospital to retain a thriving public obstetric service run by GP obstetricians. Deliveries have risen 12.5% and she assumes a senior role in a team delivering over 700 babies each year. Susan now performs her own caesareans and can offer the full obstetric service in remote locations such as Derby where she does obstetric locums.

Twenty-one years after entering medicine, she had recently completed an obstetrics research project and hopes this, plus her work with the WA Centre for Rural and Remote Medicine, will help others providing obstetrical services in remote communities.

Enjoying bush walking and bee keeping as hobbies, she has a long term goal to work for Medicine sans Frontiers or Oxfam - when she gets enough money in her super fund.

(, accessed 30 March 2011)

I'm trying to locate her contact details so as to send her an email and ask if I can do an elective with her at the end of the year! Would be amaaaazing!!

1 comment:

  1. The WA GP network might be somewhere to start...