Sitting in full body armour in the back of an armoured vehicle while undertaking long-range patrols in the Iraqi desert, with temperatures reaching 70C inside the cabin and delirium setting in, would prepare you for most challenges in life.
Dr Peter Zimmermann has called on all of his Australian Defence Force experience (ADF) to help fellow Australians in the country’s COVID-19 pandemic response efforts.
Peter, who is training to become a GP through NTGPE’s Australian General Practice Training (AGPT) Program, was deployed to Melbourne as part of a reconnaissance team with four other people from Darwin to lead the ADF’s health response to COVID-19.
“We went down when the outbreak in Victoria started, and I was away for three months,” he said.
“As ADF people, we don’t really do the rural and remote experience, but we certainly end up doing it by providing care in these operational moments when you’re away from family and home, and working in complex environments.
“We started from nothing in Melbourne, as the ADF hadn’t been in this space before, so we developed ADF procedures around vehicle check points, quarantine compliance, and border control.
“As the Senior Medical Officer for the Health Support Unit, I helped drive these processes and policies, and stakeholder engagement and health care for our own people, including physical and mental health care.
“Our team eventually grew into 360 people who were out there doing public swabbing and community testing for COVID-19 at the drive-in clinics.
“We also branched out into the residential aged care sector, providing either bridging clinical care where they can’t get staff to fill the void, or helping with auditing of procedures in the facilities to ensure a COVID-safe environment.
“It was a leadership role for me, rather than as a clinician on the ground doing the swabbing.
“Supervising the workforce and providing technical advice, sitting in the HQ of the unit, was quite interesting, challenging and fatiguing.”
Peter, who grew up in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, didn’t always plan to become a doctor.
He joined the Army when he was 18 and was a nurse throughout his first 15 years with the ADF.
“I never really thought of myself as a doctor,” he explained. “I’ve always been involved in the St John volunteer side of things, and chose to do nursing because that’s where my interest was at the time.
“As I’ve grown as an adult, I’ve thought I could offer a different type of care and that’s where I wanted to head to continue to develop as a person.”
During his time with the ADF, Peter has spent many days, weeks, and months on exercises, with postings in Sydney, Darwin and Albury at the Army School of Health, where he was an instructor training the doctors and medics for the Army.
It was at the ADF that he was deployed to Iraq in 2007 as a nursing officer.
“We were there to provide primary health care for the Australian soldiers, but because we’re Australian clinicians, we were really valuable compared to a lot of our Coalition partners, because we’re very broad in our scope.
“I also worked in the US-led trauma centre, and did aero-medical evacuations with the Blackhawk helicopters.
“The reason we put on the uniform is that sense of obligation to community.
“I’ve been really fortunate in my life to be around people who have mentored me and helped me develop as a person, and paying that back and doing that same thing for younger people you’re bringing through is something I’m passionate about and makes it easier being away from the family.”
It was with the ADF that Peter first visited Darwin and the Northern Territory, and when his love of the region grew.
“I’d been to Darwin previously as a nurse, and enjoyed it here, and the key drivers for us coming here was the lifestyle,” he said.
“The Territory is very relaxed and is family friendly, and with pretty good weather for most of the year. For us, it was a family decision rather than other ADF options in Brisbane or Townsville.”
Peter’s preference as a doctor has always been general practice, rather than working in hospitals, which led him to joining the AGPT Program.
“Hospitals tend to be a bit episodic in care, and the patient gets admitted and moved on, and the classic line is ‘GP to follow up’,” he said.
“The GP is the interconnector of all elements of health care and pieces everything together for the patient.
“The people I always thought were happiest as doctors were the people who dabbled in different areas. General practice allows you to do that very easily.
“For example, you can still work in the ED two days a week, and also work in obstetrics or palliative care, so I think doing different things during the week keeps you fresh and invigorated, and that’s a really good balance.”
Peter believes the opportunities in general practice in the Northern Territory are broad, and the experiences you gain life changing.
“People are really welcoming and happy to have us here to help in the Northern Territory, compared to other areas in Australia. That follows through into the structures that support GP training in the NT,” he said.
“NTGPE is a very well set up, organised place for GP registrars. They recognise that because people are spread so far apart, having quite focused content is important for the development of the registrar, not only as a doctor but also as a person.
“I think that’s really important, and something that you can’t get anywhere else.
“NTGPE really helps you transition from becoming a hospital-based thinker to a community-based thinker, and people don’t appreciate how difficult that is until you do it.
“They help you deal with the uncertainty of general practice, and accepting that it’s normal not to know everything.
“They also teach you that work-life balance is important. A lot of people pay a statement like that lip service, but NTGPE has people who model that behaviour in practice through medical education and supervision.
“It’s amazing to see their experience, and how you can do different and interesting things but still have a family life. That’s really important. Their passion for the Territory comes through.”
Peter, who is settled in Darwin with nurse wife Mandy and their two children Charlie and Clara, expects to Fellow next year and is excited for the future.
“I’ve got some decisions in the future to make whether I stay in Defence or join a practice, or a bit of both, but definitely as a GP is where I will be,” he said.
“You’re helping fellow humans out, and it can’t be much better than that.”
Learn more about Our Community, Our Health here.