By Dr Kirsty O'Keefe
I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the vast Australian continent and their connections to sea, land and community. I pay my respects to their past, present and future elders.
For most people 2021 was synonymous with one word, remembered by extended lockdowns and evokes feelings of worry and stress. The healthcare system was (and remains) under great pressure and my colleagues faced unprecedented challenges in their professional and personal lives. It was a life-changing year.
For me, I was the exception; 2021 was a fabulous year. I passed the CICM first part exam and then took off driving around the country for the rest of the year. My partner and I kept the set up simple, just our Hilux and our swag.
Not everyone agreed with my plan to take a year off. Some colleagues were concerned about my skills and knowledge retention; my mother about me spending my house deposit. Would I have a job for the next clinical year? Should I have returned when the lockdown chaos ensued?
We left Victoria just before the pandemic wave in late May, making our way to the (at the time) safe space of NSW. We kept to the coast exploring all the little towns on the way, taking short hikes in all the national parks and tasting the local produce as we drove. On the western side of the Blue mountains we explored a glow worm tunnel that took us back to the Jurassic period. Our only PCR test was when we got to Byron Bay due to being potential contacts when we’d stayed in Jervis Bay 12 days prior.
With luck we made to QLD before the pandemic shut down Sydney and enjoyed multiple diving trips off Townsville and Cairns to various reefs, shipwrecks and to swim with Minke whales. The pandemic even worked in our favour when we picked up last minute cancelations to hike Hinchinbrook Island for three nights. We continued heading north, having one of our biggest adventures driving the (in)famous “Old Telegraph Track” 4WD track to Cape York. We finished it with only a few scratches to the car (and my leg) and reached the “Northernmost point of the Australian Continent”; locally known as “the tip”.
On the way back down from the tip we had the privilege to be taught about Quinkan rock art around Ang Gnarra (Laura) from the traditional owners of this land. It was then time to head westward via a detour to the gorgeous Boodjamulla (aka Lawn Hill) national park. This was one of our favourite parks of the whole trip; just some shy freshwater crocodiles to keep you company in the blue water oasis.
The border crossing into the NT was like entering a new country and a strange experience for driving in our own country. We took a break from the swag in Darwin for a month and even tried a couple of days mango picking (an experience to say the least). It was the edge of the wet season when we explored the famous NT parks and we were glad for the open air of the swag in the “mango-madness” weather.
Miraculously we drove into Western Australia just 48 hours before that border also shut from the NT. Pure luck on that one. Some of the Kimberley was seasonally closed by this time but this just gives us another excuse to return to that beautiful boab-tree country. There were endless highlights as we adventured down the west coast; snorkelling with turtles, alien baler-shells and manta rays on the Ningaloo reef. Stunning remote country all the way.
After some time with family in Perth and a “hello” to the adorable Rottnest island inhabitants, we had the whole of the South West to explore. There were lots of local delicacies to sample in this food bowl region. The year was flying by. We spent Christmas on a pristine white beach just out of Esperance.
The longest straight road in Australia was certainly that. We didn’t spot the Nullarbor Nymph as we came across the bight or when we camped on the epic Bunda Cliffs. It took some adjusting back to pandemic restrictions once we’d reached SA for New Year. There had been none our whole time in WA. We explored parts of western SA and saw great white sharks from a cage off Port Lincoln.
There was little time left before the next clinical year began. After a visit to more family in Adelaide we completed “the loop” back to Melbourne with 198 nights in the swag and no flat tyres (!!). We could use some improvement in our fishing skill though (just one to eat!) and we’ll pass on the two mice we had in the car. We experienced a lot of this country and still have so much more to see.
Our daily work demonstrates the fragility of life. Our patients are as sick as they could be and often on the edge of dying. No one wants to be in that bed, if they didn’t have to be, and no one wants to be beside their family member lying under a white sheet connected to endless tubes. They are grateful for our care but would rather be elsewhere.
I want to make the most of my life whilst I can. I want to hike mountains, dive shipwrecks, drive to the most remote areas and make memories with my loved ones. I want to learn from the people of our country, from far and wide.
I feel rejuvenated and reconnected to myself and to my profession. Time and physical distance gave me the opportunity to step away from the stress and sadness that so often engulfs an intensive care unit. Having just the essential supplies and no fixed plan allowed me to learn to appreciate nature and its variability. Now I see more beauty in the care we provide and seek more information about my patients’ lives. My interests in ICU medicine have been re-sparked after the pressure of first part exams and I am looking forward to my many years of medical experiences to come.
When I’m not working, I’m ensuring I spend time doing things I enjoy for the simplicity of enjoying life. Big or small, keep doing the things you love.