Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Long and unconventional road to a medical career

Sam Alexander is not one for adhering to convention. Born and bred in Churchill, the aspiring surgeon who is soon to graduate from his medical degree, spends weekends tending to an unusual side project – an emerging equestrian centre on the fringes of Morwell.

The passionate Monash University medical student, who hopes to eventually create a niche for himself as a visiting surgeon - with a paediatric interest - in the Latrobe Valley, has trod his own path from a very young age. As a baby, Sam survived a life-threatening lung condition thanks to surgery at Monash Health. As a Kurnai College, and later St Paul’s Anglican Grammar, student he developed a desire to study medicine. When the motivated teen found himself falling short of the very high ATAR required for direct entry to medicine, he ‘came in the back way’ by first completing a Bachelor of Science in Queensland followed by an honours year in Tasmania.

In 2011 Sam was accepted into Monash’s graduate entry medical course but, following completion of his first year in Churchill, he deferred in order to ride more than 5,000 kilometres on horseback from Victoria to far north Queensland to raise funds for the Royal Flying Doctor Service and promote rural medicine.

Testament to his resolve, Sam did not come from a ‘horsey’ background but instead he discovered a passion for riding as a ‘release’ from the claustrophobic conditions of city-based study. “I bought two inexpensive horses near the end of my first year of studying medicine, learned how to break them in over a few weeks, packed them within a week and set off,” he said. The epic journey set the scene for a longer-term commitment which has seen Sam more recently expand an agistment project on local, family-owned property, fencing numerous paddocks in order to accommodate a growing waiting list of horses in need of land. The project, which Sam intends to develop into a thriving equestrian centre including an undercover arena, provides a welcome break from his intense university schedule which has this year included multiple placements, including a stint in paediatrics at London’s renowned Great Ormond Street Hospital as well as local and Melbourne-based rotations.

His experiences this year, particularly at the UK’s largest paediatric centre, have affirmed Sam’s passion for surgery. The keen student has also embraced an opportunity to work on a laparoscopic research project this year under the supervision of Monash senior lecturer Dr Ram Natraja, who is also Director of the Paediatric Surgical Simulation Department at Monash Children’s Hospital. The research has convinced Sam of the need to see basic ultrasound and laparoscopic skills embedded in the medical bachelor degree. “I think some early exposure to these skills would be so valuable,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, Sam’s plan is to pursue a diverse career path. “I don’t want to be just good at one thing,” he said. “One of the biggest driving factors for me is being able to work in a regional areas and I would like the challenge of being a general surgeon but certainly with a focus on paediatrics.” Sam’s ambition to eventually practice locally, at least in a visiting capacity, was cemented through a series of Gippsland-wide placements facilitated through Monash Rural Health. “I have now spent time in metropolitan and rural settings and I believe that, hands-down, you have better clinical exposure in rural areas in a friendlier atmosphere with interested doctors and better medical practitioner-student ratios,” he said.

While city-based placements also provided valuable learning experiences and improved access to some specialist teaching, Sam insisted rural placement were superior, with receptive patients offering many opportunities for observation and practical experience.

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