Meet Dr Sandra Hirowatari
Herstory this month features our own Dr Sandra Hirowatari, our esteemed Rural and Remote AFMW Council member. Sandra’s challenge to herself has been, “I wanted to be a person I admire” and ‘face your fear’.
Upon reading Sandra’s story, my immediate response was ‘wow’, and after digesting it all, letting the emotional impact settle, and speaking from the perspective of an urban doctor who experiences rural and remote only as a transient observer on holidays, I am filled with a sense of awe and gratitude that doctors like Sandra exist.
My Story starts with 4 words: “Sandra, go scare yourself”.
I was totally burnt out, not enjoying family practice. 12 years before I built a bespoke solo family practice clinic, from the ground up. I found I was completely booked in 3 months. I gave cradle to grave care and made hospital, nursing homes and yes, house visits. Procedurally, I was the theatre assistant to any surgery involving my patient, including the camera operator and the surgeon’s third hand in lap cholecystectomies, the one who disarticulated the hips for THR. I trained as a cardiothoracic assist, I held the atrial clamp and helped harvest the saphenous vein. In my own office, I did all childhood immunisations, IUD insertions, biopsies and minor surgery. Late nights, I worked as an overnight hospitalist, and sexual assault forensic examiner. I happily worked late hours to accommodate work hours of my patients. Out of the office, I sat on many committee groups.
So with such a rich practice, I could not understand why I wanted to throw the towel in. It was not overwork. Like most family doctors, I could of done more and not been overworked. But I was sucked dry. I had to get out. I was researching alternative careers and was on the cusp of throwing in the towel. That was when a mentor, another family doctor, who was in a bit of hurry said, “Sandra, go scare yourself.”
Odd, I thought. What a piece of advice! Then I argued to myself, what can I lose? Okay, I will just get scared , then I will throw in the towel.
So out came my list of things that scare me:
- Giving up my family practice.
- Being a solo physician in a remote Town.
- Being alone, full stop.
- Leaving my comfortable home.
- Trapped outside, 35- 40 degrees below zero, and only my wits to keep me warm.
- Help, the baby is being born, I’m the only doctor.
- Help, a pneumothorax.
- Mass Trauma
- Someone dying in front of me, and I was at the end of things I could do.
- Scuba Diving under ice.
- Running into a deer or moose and having to finish the kill.
- Sky Jumping, maybe bungy jumping
- Being on governance boards.
- Polar Bears
- Grizzly Bears
So my self talk ran like, “Let’s do Rural Emergency rooms, where obstetrics is a possibility and occasionally you will be the only doctor in town, in the arctic where bears, moose and deer may be found.”
After 15 years of regular GP work, one does not just work in the rural Emergency rooms. I upskilled for over two years under an incentive program trying to draw urban doctors rurally. Clever really, to address the rural workforce shortage. Even this upskilling was scary, training in a trauma team in a tertiary centre, multiple supervised ER placements. In the midst of this, an Australian workforce agency advertisement caught my attention, “Come to Rural Australia” They promised to give me a week long orientation to the MBS, PBS, driving on the wrong side of the road and a rural emergency course. Sure why not?
I argued that too hot was about as dangerous as too cold, and instead of grizzly bears there will be sharks and crocs. So, I came to Australia in 2007, “just for 6 months”, at the same time making a promise to myself I would still work in the Arctic. Today, 14 years later, I now work in two countries, rural and remote. In 2019 I became an Australian citizen, the same year I first worked in the Arctic. My home is in Cairns, right next to the “Danger, crocodile” signs and I scuba dive with the sharks here in the Great Barrier Reef.
What is it about the concept of scaring yourself? It is opposite of comfortable. It means always choosing the different route, shaking things up if they become routine. Have you noticed that what you fear, there is an element of fascination, possible attraction to that fear? I noticed, over everything in my fear list, I would have liked to have some mastery or command. I admire those who have fear, but do it anyways. I wanted to be a person I admire.
I have yet to do my first sky dive, have not yet come face to face with a polar or grizzy bear, but all sorts of other bears. No, that baby was not born in the ambulance, we managed to make it to a tertiary centre in full labour,
I have been the only doctor in a rural town, scuba dived under ice, and with dangerous sharks and sea snakes. Yes, I was on a few governance bodies. Yes, I have had to finish the kill of a kangaroo, but not a moose. Yes sadly, I was one of the doctors in a mass trauma incident, Yes, I made it to the Arctic, in the middle of winter, the temperature was minus 35-40. But yes, I worked in the heat plus 50 where birds die while flying, from the heat. (Birds also die in flight at minus 40.) Yes, people have died in our emergency rooms. There was nothing more to be done, but I was there with them, mine was the last hand they felt. I have never felt like throwing in the towel again. I regret I haven’t had the opportunity to thank my mentor.
Thank you Sandra for sharing your story, for the immeasurable contribution you make to the lives of vulnerable people and for stretching yourself to face the fear we mostly try to avoid. We have much to learn about inner strength from Sandra’s story. Hopefully by reading these vignettes, you learn something new about career development and aspects of mentoring. You are also invited to learn more about Sandra’s amazing career by connecting directly with her on LinkedIn.
President, Australian Federation of Medical Women
The online AFMW Herstory E-Book, gives AFMW members the opportunity to contribute to the AFMW oral tapestry, by forming a compilation of ‘our mentoring stories’, in which we honour those who have changed our lives. Making this an online AFMW story book, encourages us each to consider contributing to building this over the years, into a collection of medical women’s ‘key take home messages’, as we share the wisdom we each have gained from our own lived experiences. The ‘golden nugget of wisdom’ that we would share with someone who asked us about what we have learned.
Add Your Story
If you would like to contribute your story, please download the Herstory template (Word doc), add your details and return the completed form to [email protected]. Please also submit a photo of yourself with this. It can be a ‘selfie’ taken with a good camera that you would be happy to have others see.
Magdalena is the President of the AFMW (2020-) and former President of VMWS (2013 & 2017-2020), National Coordinator AFMW, MWIA Scientific and Research Subcommittee co-Chair, MWIA Mentoring and Leadership, Special Interest Group, Chair
Magdalena’s deep engagements with the RACGP over many years includes chair of Women in General Practice, is currently on the RACGP Expert Committee Quality Care, prior to that on RACGP eHealth Expert Committee. She is a regular media spokesperson on numerous health issues, being interviewed most weeks by mainstream and medical media. Magdalena has represented the RACGP at senate enquiries and has worked on several National Health Framework reviews.
Both an RACGP examiner and University examiner she supervises medical students and undertakes general practice research. Roles outside of RACGP include the Strategy and Policy Committee for Breast Cancer Network Australia, Board Director of Women’s Health Victoria and Chair of their Strategy and Policy subcommittee and the AMA Victoria GP Network Committee.
Magdalena has presented at the United Nations as part of the Australian Assembly and was recently appointed the Australian representative to the World Health Organisation, World Assembly on COVID 19, by the Medical Women’s International Association (MWIA).