Articles and Case Studies

From ship to shore

10 Jul 2023

Niranjala Hillyard

by Niranjala Hillyard

From ship to shore

Doug Brazil’s childhood dream was to become a marine medic, and he was fortunate in being able to follow his dream. From an early start with the Australian Air Force, his career took him sailing across the seas as a medic with the Royal Australian Navy. After a successful 22-year stint, feeling he had more to offer, Doug drifted back to shore and found himself anchored in medicine.

Doug was a delightful person to interview, with many valuable insights and life experiences that will no doubt steer him wisely through his journey as a doctor.

Q1. How did you get started with the Australian Air Force?

I always wanted to be in the defence forces. The distant lands, amazing equipment, and doing something to change the course of history. A far cry from my home in suburban WA. I joined the Army cadets at 12, and was a shaved-head little military fan boy throughout my high-school years. I started off with the Airfield Defence Guards (Air Force infantry) and was by far the youngest.

I joined the RAAFSFS (a unit that trained my job, dog handlers, firefighters and police) and spent the next few years walking through bush looking for an imaginary enemy; blowing things up in military style; training in weapon systems; digging holes and refilling them; and generally had an average but not exciting time.

Q2. What initiated your career shift into the medical pathway, and how did you cope with the change?

My friend was badly injured during an air-training exercise, with bone exposed and screaming in agony. I was helpless. All I had was a torn triangular bandage and bits of band-aid. Then a camouflaged F150 careened over, and people with red crosses on their shoulders expertly secured their equipment, speaking medical lingo I barely understood. The way they stabilised his leg and took charge of the situation really impressed me. They were medics and doctors – and that was what I wanted to be.

That week I put in my transfer to join the Navy, as the Air Force wasn’t hiring medics. I was finally transferred in 2005 and never looked back. I served on various warships in multiple zones (conflict, humanitarian, border protection and counter-piracy) and sub-specialised in hyperbaric medicine, working with submariners, clearance divers, commandos, and the SAS.

At age 30, I was almost at the top of the sailor ranks, with a chest full of medals and a drawer full of commendations. I loved my career, but I was bored and felt I had more to offer. That’s when I applied for medicine. I got my first preference, and the Navy sponsored me – this meant I was able to have my two children and live a comfortable life while studying.

It took time to adjust as a mature-age medical student. My peers were at different life stages to me, with no kids, and more time for study and social activities. I felt I had stepped into a new era, a stark contrast to the military. I was slower on the technological side, but made up for this in other ways – such as being able to empathise, read between the lines, and not just recite a book. And while being respectful to peers and supervisors, I was able to call out inappropriate behaviour in a mature and constructive way.

Q3. How do you manage to balance work and family life, as a husband and a father?

Like any medication, the better the efficacy of the drug (usually) the worse the side effects. Clozapine is great for mental health where other tablets don’t work, but so damaging to the body you have to be on a surveillance program to ensure you don’t fall off the edge.

I don’t have my work-life balance perfectly sorted out, but I do have boundaries though. Birthdays, weddings, mental health days, sick days – I prioritise these without remorse or apology. I support my wife’s career completely, and I’m conscious of being around for my kids as they’re only young once. I politely decline to participate in anything I don’t have the capacity for.

Q4. What would you consider to be the highlights of your medical career?

When a patient comes into hospital at death’s door, and I see them walk out in good health, knowing I played a part in their recovery or even saved their life – it makes all the effort worthwhile. People are my highlight, and I have a long list of those who inspire me – the ED team, trauma surgeons, doctors, registrars, nursing staff, and many others.

I don’t consider myself talented, but I take every opportunity to learn and improve. I’m dedicated to my personal growth because I have a clear vision of the type of doctor I want to be.

My parents weren’t wealthy, and university wasn’t an option when I was growing up. So, being awarded ‘2022 Intern of the Year’ at Royal Perth Hospital was really gratifying, and I was humbled by the words of recognition that I received.

Q5. Can you share some learnings from your multiple careers to help your fellow interns?

A wise person once said, “it takes a village to raise a child”. A more modern military term captures that ethos with, “bullets don’t fly without supply”.

I’ve learnt that discipline, perseverance and hard work are far more powerful and rewarding than talent. I watched soldiers on special forces selection courses who weren’t the quickest learners. But even when their bodies were on the verge of shutting down in the middle of the night, they would practise the scenarios in their heads. They were the ones who made it and got their beret.

Make your own luck and never give up. Read the criteria, identify the key stakeholders, and do everything you can to succeed. Arrive early and participate in discussions; be the person who replaces the printer paper and knows where the stash of scripts are; pay for courses and do research projects.

Your rifle will never jam if you’re diligent and consistent with your learning and preparation. Observe your official and unofficial mentors; see the good and reject the bad. Listen to criticism, but be wary of the staff who give it. Don’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong or just don’t know the answer to something.

Diligence and discipline outweigh talent and spontaneity. There’s no magic formula to being a good doctor. Just be honest, consistent, ask questions, use the MDT staff, and accept that you can feel stupid and challenged at times – but always strive to have one small win a day. Remind your colleagues you have a privileged job; remind patients that they matter.

It’s never truly satisfying if you do things just for praise. I’ve stayed back late helping RMOs master cannulation. I worked hard to study the local mental health and support services. I’d start work half an hour early, printing and checking blood results, and reviewing patients’ notes to try and formulate a plan while awaiting the consultant – not for accolades or to be noticed, but to become a better doctor.

Every sailor on a ship has a special job that is vital for the cog to run. But you never step over a pile of trash on the flight deck because you think it’s someone else’s job. You will meet all kinds of people – polite, helpful, rude or disrespectful. But YOU have the choice to be a supportive and kind human. Never forget that.

Don’t hurry to reach the end goal… take time to breathe and enjoy the journey.

Doug Brazil Dr Doug Brazil is currently a Resident Medical Officer at the East Metropolitan Health Service in Western Australia. He was the recipient of the Royal Perth Hospital 2022 Intern of the Year Award. 

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