For seven days out of every fortnight Stewart Hazelton works 24 hours a day as the lone doctor on North Stradbroke Island.
Between 9am and 5pm the PGY3 and enrolled ACRRM Rural Generalist trainee (2022 intake) is manning the Marie Rose Centre in Dunwich, an outpost of the Redland Hospital Emergency Department, where he is supported by a Queensland Health nurse and an administration officer.
After hours he is on-call for any and every medical emergency that happens on the island, often working in partnership with Queensland Ambulance Service Officers.
In the seven months since taking on the role Stewart has found himself managing car accidents, downed planes and serious drug overdoses.
He has even delivered two babies.
He likens the job to one of a rural doctor stationed out bush.
“We face the same dilemmas here,” Stewart says.
“We’ve got limited resources, can come up against transport issues depending on the time of day and weather conditions often play a role too,” he says.
“Caring for the island’s occupants encompasses a broad spectrum of health needs; from paediatrics to Indigenous health and geriatric care—it is very much a job that requires you to think on your feet and that’s a big part of what I love about it.”
Stewart’s winding path to medicine
Growing up in Brisbane with two parents working in medicine, Stewart says he decided at a young age that he wanted to become a doctor.
He went straight into a science degree from high school as the first step towards achieving this goal, so it was a shock when the coursework didn’t feel like a natural fit.
“I actually struggled with aspects of the degree,” he explains.
“And by the time I was at the tail end of it I’d convinced myself I just wasn’t smart enough to get in to medicine.”
Feeling lost and a little directionless he moved states to take a part-time job running lab classes at The University of Tasmania and study a business degree at The Australian Maritime College.
When he was offered a job at the Port of Townsville before he’d even completed his business studies it appeared he’d made a clever choice.
Stewart returned to Queensland for the role and had even moved his belongings to Townsville when the new job suddenly fell through.
His self-described ‘wild at heart’ response was to buy a one-way ticket to California.
“At first the idea was just to get away—have a holiday—but a few weeks ended up stretching to a year,” he explains.
“I took a casual job in a coffee house which led to me enrolling in a CBEST (California Basic Educational Skills Test) course and qualifying for teaching work,” he says.
Stewart became a substitute teacher and took a second job as a youth worker for a local church.
“I was in a rough neighbourhood—there was more than one occasion where I had a gun pulled on me—but I really enjoyed the work I was doing and made some great friends during that time,” he says.
In 2007 Stewart returned to Australia.
“I landed back in Brisbane as the 2007 floods were unfolding,” he says.
“The Global Financial Crisis had hit and jobs for a 24-year-old business graduate were in short supply, but eventually I got a graduate position with waste management company J.J. Richards & Sons.”
Stewart’s first day on the job was spent servicing garbage trucks.
“I vividly remember a mechanic handing me the tiniest pair of tin snips and instructing me to cut away used nappies and barbed wire that had become wrapped around the packer’s auger,” he says.
Over time he settled into the company’s operations division and before long was working 12 hour days coordinating the logistics of franking waste and miner’s septic on large scale mining contracts in regional Queensland.
The work became increasingly pressured and Stewart says he began to wonder if the stress was worth it for a job—a career—he knew in his bones he didn’t love.
His interest in medicine had never waned and eventually the realisation hit him: he wanted to give it a go.
Stewart quit his logistics job and a week later he was sitting in a lecture theatre at Bond University starting a graduate diploma in counselling and behavioural management to earn a GPA worthy of securing a place at the university’s school of medicine.
He took a low-paying job at a car rental firm to support him through his studies.
“I’d work 5am – 3pm Friday to Sunday at Brisbane Airport and then Monday to Thursday I’d commute to uni on the Gold Coast by bus and train,” Stewart recalls.
The day he finally began his medical degree was a watershed moment.
“I looked around at the rest of the student cohort—many of whom were school leavers—and I thought to myself, geez what was I worried about for all those years, I should have applied to do this earlier,” he says.
Choosing General Practice
The idea of becoming a GP—and a rural one at that—first presented during his medical degree.
During his preclinical year Stewart volunteered for two weeks in Longreach in Queensland’s central west and loved every bit of the experience.
“I got to know some Rural Generalist registrars and learned why they’d chosen this pathway for themselves,” he says.
“I was impressed by their competency, holding the town’s health together, and I ended up returning a couple more times to volunteer.”
Stewart signed up for the Queensland Rural Generalist Pathway while still at university and a dynamic intern year spent at Rockhampton Base Hospital only seemed to reinforce this decision.
However, his plans to stay on in Rockhampton for a second year unraveled in 2020 when a family member became unwell.
He returned to Brisbane to assist with home care and took a full-time job in emergency medicine at Redlands Hospital.
For the next 12 months he focused on family and surviving the intense training environment of hospital-based emergency medicine, wondering if he’d ever be able to get his planned career in Rural Generalism back on track.
McDonalds dinner meetings and a path forward
In time Stewart’s family situation found some stability and, more sure than ever that he wasn’t meant for a city-based hospital career, he decided to reconnect with the Queensland Rural Generalist Pathway to enquire about training options.
“I found myself on the phone to the Pathway Medical Director Dr John Douyere, who gave me the encouragement I needed,” he says.
Stewart was put in touch with Rural Generalist mentor Dr Felicity Constable.
“I will never forget it,” he recalls of their initial meeting.
“She went out of her way to meet me at a MacDonald’s at 10pm at night after I’d completed an ED shift, in the pouring rain, after she just had a long drive back from Toowoomba,” he says.
“We sat there talking and I remember thinking, what other training program would go out of their way to help a trainee like this? It was pretty affirming.”
Finding his tribe
Stewart says he is now exactly where he needs to be.
For the remainder of 2021 he will work between the Marie-Rose Centre, and Wynnum-Manly Community Health Centre (Gundu Pa), which he says is much like an ‘emergency department fast-track’.
The Centre is designed for expedited assessment and treatment of acute conditions, Stewart explains, and has been very successful in decreasing presentations to Redlands Hospital Emergency Department.
“I work with Senior Medical Officers—all of them Rural Generalists—who have a wealth of knowledge,” he says.
“It is an awesome learning environment to be part of and I feel very lucky.”
In 2022 Stewart will move to Hervey Bay to undertake advanced skills training in Emergency Medicine.
The following year he plans to undertake JCCA Rural Anaesthetist training.
He says his ultimate goal is to practice in the remote communities of far North Queensland with his family beside him.
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