Many people can relate to the old adage: “It takes a community to raise a child”, but Dr Bekkie Lee believes it also takes a community to raise a doctor.
As a mother of three with a husband who works on a FIFO roster and their families interstate, Bekkie did it the hard way on her journey to attaining her Fellowship through the Australian General Practice Training (AGPT) Program with NTGPE earlier this year.
As a proud Indigenous woman, Bekkie learnt to lean on the Indigenous GP Registrars Network (IGPRN), as well as many other people and groups, to get her through her GP training.
“The networks and supports that I formed within the amazing IGPRN support group were an integral component for me getting through the GP training program,” she said.
“Having other Indigenous registrars and doctors with similar struggles and issues that were able to empathise with me and support each other was invaluable.”
Bekkie says without the time, dedication, support and sacrifices, she would not have the knowledge to be able to diagnose, support or advocate for her patients.
“I don’t feel that I have become the doctor that I am because of me,” she said.
“I feel that I am the doctor I am because of my children, my family, my colleagues, my mentors, IGPRN members, NTGPE, Department of Health, the NT Medical Program, my patients, and many other contributing factors.”
Bekkie, who currently splits her time between the Family Planning and Alcohol and Other Drugs units in Darwin, is working to complete her Fellowship in Advanced Rural General Practice (FARGP) and has also started her training for a Fellowship with the Chapter of Addiction Medicine.
It was during her time as a remote nurse that she first considered becoming a doctor.
“My grandmother, great aunt and aunt were all nurses. I did my training as a registered nurse in WA and then did hospital-based stuff and went remote after that,” she said.
“Having lived, worked, and loved the rural and remote setting, I felt that I had something to offer.
“A lot of it was about watching people come out into remote areas, with no remote area experience and minimal understanding of Indigenous people and culture. As a nurse, I found that really frustrating.
“I wanted to be a long-term contributing factor to the health, education and advocacy of people living in rural and remote areas.”
Early on in her GP training, Bekkie realised that the valuable experiences she gained from each training post would help evolve and refine her as a doctor.
“I saw a patient early on in my training who had not engaged in health care for quite some time – she presented to the clinic when she came to town after a prolonged period of time out bush,” she said.
“After a long consult, pathology, and a plan in place, I thought I would see this patient in a week or two.
“I received a phone call the following day from the pathology provider to inform me that this patient’s renal function was critical and she was on the road (in the very near future) to renal failure requiring dialysis.
“I phoned the patient and asked if I could come and talk to her, and, with her permission, I went to her home.
“We talked, we cried, we hugged, and she asked questions and we talked about the way forward.
“This patient continued to see me at the clinic and when I left, when she came in and gave me a beautifully handwritten card thanking me for everything that I had done for her and her family.
“I still see this lady every now and then in the shops, and when I do, her smile and hugs remind me why I am the person that goes the extra mile.”
Bekkie is thankful to NTGPE for the role it has played in supporting her to tailor her training to now be on the verge of completing her FARGP.
“My journey through the training program has been tumultuous, with lots of tears and frustrations and questioning my path,” she said.
“Without an understanding medical educator, pastoral care officer, and support staff I have no doubt that I would never have completed my fellowship.
“I was not happy with a generic qualification, and felt that if I was going to all this effort, that I wanted to do something specific to my interests, skills, and perceived need within the GP arena that I was working in.
“Attempting to tailor make my fellowship is not something that I would change.
“I have almost completed my FARGP with extended skills in mental health and AOD, and there were definitely people within NTGPE that supported me to ensure that my dream became a reality.”
So, where does Bekkie see herself in five years’ time?
“I am certainly keeping my options and mind open, and not tying myself down to one particular track,” she said.
“I’m working in an amazingly supportive environment at the moment and working towards an Addiction Fellowship – another area of specialist shortage in the NT.
“I’m also working with a fantastic team working and advocating in the field of reproductive and sexual health.
“As a doctor I am able to draw on all my life skills and experiences and combine this with knowledge to support my patients, families and the wider community.
“Helping and advocating for people, no matter what form that takes, and contributing to their life journey is so very rewarding and makes it all worth it.”
Bekkie believes that being in medicine in the NT exposes GP registrars to conditions, situations, and presentations that the greater majority of doctors never or rarely see.
“Our normal is not what most GPs call normal,” she said.
“In fact, this could not be more apparent than when getting together with GPs from other parts of Australia, especially when preparing for the fellowship exams.
“Being a NT doctor is not only a rewarding challenge, but a privilege.
“There is nowhere else that we would be able to practice the type of medicine on a daily basis that we do here in the NT, and nowhere else that I would rather be.”