The first time I heard of Rwanda was on my honeymoon. My husband was reading about it in the news and he said: “I think you are going to have to go to this place.” I’d been on an army scholarship through university and was just beginning my mandated return of service. Sure enough, a few weeks after I got back my commander was sounding me out to go there. They were putting together a medical unit and, for the first time in history, it was the doctors, nurses and support staff as the main force, with the infantry and engineers as support rather than the other way round. Even though I knew it would be a terrible experience in lots of ways, I decided to put my hand up. Next thing I know, I was in the capital, Kigali. When we arrived at our little hospital, the first thing we had to do was clean. It had been bombed and there was literally blood on the walls, IV poles that had just been ripped out of people’s arms and unspeakable things that had been shoved down toilets. Eventually we found an operating theatre and in it was this Italian surgeon called Gino, who had been the only doctor in the town for a month because everybody else had fled or been killed. We walked in and said, ‘Hi, we are doctors from Australia’ and he went ‘right, come over here’ and literally said ‘see one, do one, teach one’. So he amputated somebody’s leg and then I did the next one. What got me through the next six-and-a-half months was the friendships I formed with the people around me. Although, I remember seriously considering taking up smoking as a means of relaxation! Fortunately I didn’t, but we did socialise and have fun, which helped a lot. Of course, there were no phones or internet access but there were lots of reporters around and, in fact, that is how my husband knew I was alive — because he kept seeing me on CNN. Now I run a practice a world away in Canberra and, despite the experience, I don’t really consider myself any tougher than your typical suburban mum or middle-aged female GP. My experience in Rwanda doesn’t influence how I deal with my staff, but it can impact my interactions with patients. A lot of them are veterans and I think they respect the fact that I have seen active duty. More than that though, it has taught me to be more tolerant of all the things we are capable of as human beings. Not just the terrible things we can do to each other, but all the things we can endure. And we can endure a lot, actually.
I was born in England and migrated to Australia as a 10-pound Pom, although I was then three and my parents were the 10-pound Poms. As a GP, I started doing a bit of aged care. I found I liked it, and the patients liked me, and it grew from there — to the point where I was looking after two-thirds of the patients at two nursing homes. At that stage, I left the practice I was with and moved into one of those nursing homes and established a solo practice. Concentrating on one age group is satisfying for me. Learning their histories, their stories from before they were incapacitated, is actually quite fascinating. These are real people, and I think that’s often forgotten. Discovering that sort of stuff is fascinating, and it motivates you a bit more to help them. I am afflicted with fairly severe arthritis. I’ve had two knee replacements. I’m physically unable to work full-time, but as long as I can do this, then I do it. It’s an area of great need. I am appreciated, and respected, and needed. And I can still do it. I need to keep moving. When you’ve got arthritis, you need to keep moving.
Dr Maureen McCluskey
I am a major in the Australian Army. In 2014, I served as regimental medical officer for 5 RAR (5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment) for an exercise in Hawaii, providing primary and emergency care, and linking troops with tertiary care as required. I was also encouraged to work side-by-side with the soldiers and participate in the training activities. One afternoon, I was sitting at the edge of a field watching soldiers fast-roping out of a US Marine Corps Sikorsky Super Stallion helicopter. Fast-roping is a technique for sliding down a thick rope and is used to rapidly deploy troops in places where a helicopter cannot touch down, such as difficult terrain or for boarding a ship at sea. I was contemplating my own irrational fear of heights when I got a tap on the shoulder from the commander telling me I was up next. Before I had the chance to protest, I was in a line and then up in the Sikorsky. A few deep breaths later, I closed my eyes and jumped, safely sliding to the ground. It was terrifying but exhilarating, and I am forever grateful for that friendly encouragement to overcome my fear of heights.