This week on Engage we catch up with fourth year medical student, Catherine Hicks. UON’s Joint Medical Program has a strong focus on clinical experience, ensuring its graduates are prepared for a rewarding medical career. As part of her Health Equity Selective in third year,Catherine spent eight weeks at a regional hospital in Pokhara, Nepal in the Paediatrics, Neonatal Intensive Care and Obstetrics, and Gynaecology departments.
Tell us about your background, including what drew you into studying medicine?
My childhood years were spent on a sheep farm outside of Dubbo, in rural NSW. After finishing high school, I moved to Newcastle to study Medicine here. This was a step towards a long-held dream to help people in need in a real, tangible way. Growing up in rural Australia, I’d seen much of the health-care divide between country and city, and also developed a passion for global health. The idea of pushing a pen and paper around just didn’t cut it for me – I wanted to help practically. So once I’d come back down to earth from my childhood fantasy of becoming an astronaut, I fell into pursuing medicine.
You recently spent eight weeks working in a regional hospital in Nepal as part of your studies. Can you tell us a little about how that opportunity came about?
All third-year medical students at UON have the opportunity to undertake an eight-week placement (almost) anywhere of their choice, with a focus on health inequities. Nepal had long held a special attraction for me – not only as a country in obvious need, but I had several connections established there already through friends who had or were currently working in Nepal. The beautiful landscapes also held a special charm for me, as I’m keenly fond of the outdoors, particularly running and hiking (which did not disappoint!)
This culminated in me spending two months at the Western Regional Hospital, in Pokhara. Throughout my time there, I was based in Paediatrics, and Obstetrics and Gynaecology. The differences to Australia were stark.
What was the most unexpected aspect of your trip to Nepal?
It’s hard to pick just one! Nepal had a habit of surprising me at almost every turn. I was very surprised, and blessed, to receive a grant from MIGA (Medical Insurance Group of Australia) for donation to the Western Regional Hospital. It was such a joy to be able to give to the hospital in a lasting way, much more than I could ever could have personally. These funds were used to purchase basic equipment for the Paediatrics and Obstetrics departments – things that we always have within reaching distance in Australian hospitals, such as blood pressure cuffs, pulse oximeters (to measure oxygen content in blood), and foetal dopplers (to listen to heart sounds in the womb).
Do you draw on any people or resources for inspiration ?
When I was ten or eleven, my grandparents gifted me the book ‘Hospital by the River’, written by Dr Catherine Hamlin, an Australian Obstetrician and Gynaecologist who has worked in Ethiopia for over 50 years. She and her late husband, Dr Reg. Hamlin, founded the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. Obstetric fistulas are a complication of childbirth, where patients leak urine or faeces, common in Ethiopia but seldom seen in Australia. These women are often shut out of their families and communities. Reg and Catherine saw this desperate need, and responded by pioneering surgical techniques to fix these fistulas; as well as caring for the many other needs of these women as they heal and reintegrate into society.
Their story resonated with me, then as now – as a remarkable demonstration of the desperate need faced by so many; our privilege here in Australia; and the power of a helping hand. It has kindled a flame that still burns, to one day use my medical skills to help those in need.
Another inspiration has been two friends, Matt and Brittany Darvas – a young Australian husband and wife who last year shipped their lives to Pokhara, Nepal to work in community development. For them, helping the poor and needy has meant trading their comfortable life in Newcastle, at an age where most of their friends are having children and buying houses, to live alongside the Nepali people. Spending time with them in Nepal was both an uncomfortable reminder of the commitment required to make change; and practically reassured me that the joy really does exceed the many trials.
What are you passionate about? Can others in the community get involved?
My friends will tell you I’m a pretty passionate person. You’ve probably already noticed I’m keenly interested rural health, and global health. Closer to home, my greatest loves are running, Compassion International (a child development organisation), and knowing Jesus Christ.
Compassion International is a fantastic organization committed to holistic child development. I travelled with them to Uganda several years ago, where my heart was torn by the wretched poverty I saw, yet the encouraged by the difference that organisations like Compassion are making.
As for knowing Jesus, that’s also open to anyone. If you’re interested in checking Him out, I’d love to invite you along to my church – Unichurch, which is part of Hunter Bible Church. We meet on Sundays at 7 pm at CT202, at Callaghan campus.
What’s been your proudest achievement to date?
Being able to donate the MIGA grant to the Western Regional Hospital would have to rate up there. In a way, it’s more humbling than prideful – as even this small donation is just a chip in the iceberg of the fight against health inequity in Nepal and all over the world.
What would be your dream project?
This question is almost a taunt for me – as I’m still yet to decide which direction I want to head in the future. Yet although I’m not quite sure what my dream project would look like, it would ideally incorporate several elements: women and children’s health; rural or remote Australian health, or global health; focus on holistic patient care; and sharing Jesus with people.
What’s your favourite Newcastle neighbourhood and why?
Glenrock State Conservation Area immediately springs to mind. It’s a little oasis nestled south of Merewether and north of Redhead, with beautiful tracks for walking, running or mountain biking; and pristine uncrowded beaches. I almost don’t want to share it with you, for fear it might become more crowded!
Can you name a local hero?
Kurt Fearnley is a local Newcastle teacher and wheelchair athlete, who has won Paralympic gold medals and crawled the Kokoda Track. His determination is inspiring.
What do you look forward to doing most in Newcastle in summer?
Summer means hitting the running trails at dawn, before cooling off with a dip in the peaceful ocean. Almost as good is the peace of a late evening stroll along the beach at twilight.
Winter in Newcastle is still beach weather, as I have learnt in the past few months I have spent studying in Oslo, Norway on semester exchange (where their summer barely reaches our winter temperatures!) Not much can beat a soul-warming Chilli Chai Tea at Monkey Monkey Monkey (or 3 Monkeys, as most people call it) on Darby Street.
Where and what was the last greatest meal you had in Newcastle?
The Atlantic salmon at Merewether Surfhouse would win hands down.
Best place to getaway to?
Treachery Beach would have to take the cake. It’s a mere two hours north of Newcastle, next door to Seal Rocks. I’ve spent several weekends camping there with friends, and can’t wait to return when I’m back in Australia.
Your #1 Newcastle insiders tip?
Get outside and enjoy the beautiful scenery Newcastle has to offer! Even better, explore some beaches and parks away from the crowded (but beautiful) central beaches. My top three would be Glenrock (as you’ve already heard), Munmorah State Conservation area and Catherine Hill Bay (near Lake Macquarie).