Aged 47 and with an established career in northern Australia, I gave up my lifestyle and financial security and moved with my family to a small townhouse in the city to become a doctor who can connect with, understand and heal a community reeling from the terrible history of colonialism, racism and trauma.
I did it because I wanted a new career that would draw on all that I have learned in half a lifetime, and allow me to contribute to my community in the best way I know how. I’m just six months into my four-year graduate medicine degree and it’s already the biggest challenge of my life.
I’ve had a range of jobs, from driving public buses through peak-hour traffic, building houses and wooden boats, working as a clown in community circuses and as halftime entertainment for the Super League, and even feeding massive saltwater crocodiles to entertain tourists.
But it was during my 17 years as an ABC journalist in the Kimberley while raising my family in Broome that I fell in love with a beautiful and troubled community. I learned there that all jobs have their drudgery but it was the moments when I felt my work made a small positive contribution that gave me the greatest sense of satisfaction.
Much of daily journalism is the churn of local news and events but, as I developed friendships and connections in the Kimberley, I was increasingly able to tell stories of the people who pushed back and overcame the terrible history of colonialism, racism and trauma that still shapes the lives of many people today.
Those meaningful stories were just a tiny part of my work and, with the ABC cutting the pay of regional journalists, I wanted a new challenge.
As ridiculous as studying medicine at my age seemed, I just couldn’t come up with an alternative that excited me enough to risk throwing in my career. But I almost gave up before I started when I realised the closest place I could study medicine was more than 2,000km away in Perth – and that was only if I could get past some major hurdles to entry.
Most Australian medical students start six years of university study straight out of high school after gaining entry with top marks in the university clinical aptitude test.
But people like me who are older and have a university degree can try their luck with the graduate Australian medical school admissions test.
Gamsat is four and a half hours of science, maths, humanities and two written essays. It’s designed so the average mark is about 50%. To get 60 is doing well, get 70 and you’re in the top 10% of the 10,000-odd hopefuls who take the exam each year.
It took me about two years for my wife and I to decide that I would take a shot at this notoriously tough exam, then face all the challenges that it would bring to our family if I was successful.
It had been almost 20 years since I completed a degree in science, so I spent about 15 months preparing for the Gamsat. I was finally ready in March 2021 but the closest location I could sit the exam was in Perth, two hours’ flying time away.
The exam fee was $500 so, with flights and a hotel, it would cost $2,000 before I could even pick up a pencil. While I was more than comfortable travelling to remote locations to report for the ABC in often difficult circumstances, heading into the centre of the city to take that exam with so much riding on it was one of the hardest challenges I’ve faced.
My sleep was riddled with bizarre dreams, my appetite vanished and I felt like a zombie crowding into the building with hundreds of other exam hopefuls, mostly half my age. But my preparation paid off.
The six months after the exam involved painfully complex administrative hurdles, applying to medical schools and doing interviews via Zoom. In November the University of Western Australia offered me a place in its doctor of medicine degree. While I felt as though I’d won the lottery, the celebrations were tainted by the reality that we now had to pack up our lives, say goodbye to our community, rent out our home and find a new one in Perth, and enrol our two youngest kids in new schools in a matter of weeks.
It has been a big challenge for my whole family, especially my two boys to adapt to new schools in the city after only knowing life in Broome. It’s only been six months and we’ve all had some tough times.
So far I have found studying medicine is like doing three science degrees simultaneously, such is the volume of work. I’ve also learnt that heating a small townhouse produces a power bill almost equivalent to an entire fortnightly Austudy payment.
But it has already been immensely rewarding and exciting, and we have all learnt we are more adaptable and resilient than we realised.
Our future is still unknown but occasionally I allow myself to imagine returning to Broome as a doctor.
At 51, I will be a pretty old junior doctor, with so much still to learn about medicine. But I hope that my other experiences in work and also in being a part of the town, a parent, a volunteer, knowing the people and their history, will help turn me into a doctor who can make a small contribution towards making my community a better place.
July 14, 2022 at 08:03AM Ben Collins