Career interrupted: When the doctor becomes the patient

Amanda Lyons

22/10/2019 2:15:29 PM

Dr Karen Woods was working hard to advance in the career she loved – but life doesn’t always go according to plan.

Dr Karen Woods during chemotherapy treatment.
Dr Karen Woods endured five months in the hospital and three rounds of chemotherapy following her diagnosis of leukaemia.

Dr Karen Woods had wanted to be a GP since year 10, when her desire to find a career in which she could help people saw her shadowing ‘an amazing GP’ during her work experience week.
And that experience left her hooked.
‘I was in awe of what happened behind the scenes of a consult,’ Dr Woods told newsGP
‘I’ve always been drawn by the variability and lifelong learning opportunities available in general practice, along with the ability to work in a rural location. 
‘The possibilities are endless.’
After completing medical school in Adelaide, Dr Woods moved to Mackay in Queensland as part of the rural generalist program. She aimed to complete her general practice training as quickly as possible – ‘Four years max,’ she told herself, so eager was she to become a GP.
Then, two months into her GPT1, the symptoms began: throbbing chest pains when she ran, followed by conjunctivitis that took six weeks to clear. Finally, her gums became so swollen she couldn’t eat. 
‘My partner dragged me kicking and screaming off to a GP; we were interstate at the time for a wedding, and never imagined it would be five months before we came home again to Mackay,’ Dr Woods said.
At the age of 27, Dr Woods received a diagnosis that absolutely floored her – acute myeloid leukaemia (AML).
‘I found it really difficult. Up to that point I had been so career-driven, trying to get through general practice training as quickly as possible, and I was then faced with the very real possibility that I may never actually fellow,’ she said.
‘But there I was, transformed from doctor into patient and forced to face my mortality.
‘My haematologist threw statistics at me: only 20% of people diagnosed with AML survive five years. If I did survive, the treatment was likely to affect my fertility; I may never have children. 
‘I remember watching season three of Game of Thrones with my partner from a hospital bed, and being really irritated that I might never learn who would eventually sit on the Iron Throne.’
Treatment was tough. Dr Woods endured three rounds of chemotherapy and five months in hospital.
‘At one point I got admitted to ICU [intensive care unit] and almost died, so I consider myself very fortunate to be here,’ she said.
After being discharged from hospital, Dr Woods struggled with her identity after focusing so strongly on work, for so long.
‘I was lost without my career as my compass,’ she said.
Dr Karen Woods has come through a diagnosis of and treatment for acute myeloid leukaemia to graduate as a Fellowed GP.

But as she returned to work and training, she found her priorities shifting as she became grateful for other aspects in her life: the flexibility of her general practice training program, which was able to accommodate her time off for chemotherapy. A supportive practice that helped her ease back with a two-day schedule and care plans to help shield her from infectious disease in the aftermath of her treatment.
Dr Woods is also grateful for the woman she refers to as an ‘inspirational mentor’, Dr Nicole Higgins, who supervised her during her first post-chemotherapy general practice rotations.
‘By that stage I had seen quite a lot of different consulting styles, but when I sat in on a consult with her, she set the bar for the type of GP that I wanted to be,’ Dr Woods said.
And, not least, Dr Woods values the support of her partner, who has since become her husband.
‘As we all know, general practice is mentally draining even when you’re well, and on several occasions my husband had to leave work to carry me to the car and drive me home,’ she said.
Dr Woods is also extremely thankful she was able to defy the odds and start her own family.
‘After being told I may never be able to have children, I consider myself even more fortunate to be blessed with a three-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter with my husband,’ she said. 
‘I’ve been on maternity leave, but am planning to start work soon with my past mentor Dr Nicole Higgins at her brand new practice in Mackay.’
And in August, Dr Woods was able to celebrate another milestone – graduating as a Fellow of the RACGP at a college ceremony held in Townsville, at which she gave the valedictory speech.
‘I feel truly lucky to have finally been able to proudly stand on that stage,’ she said.
Looking back on her experience, Dr Woods is able to reflect on the fact it has helped bring to her general practice.
‘While undergoing treatment people often made flippant remarks, “At least being a patient will make you a better doctor”,’ she said. ‘However, it’s true that we bring our myriad life experiences to our consults.
‘I know what it feels like to be churned through as a patient in the hospital system, to have the nurse as your biggest advocate, to feel that absolute black pit in your stomach when you receive bad news.
‘While most of my patients would never know about my experience, I do judiciously share if I feel it will help. I’m much better at breaking bad news than I would otherwise have been, and have learnt to grieve alongside my patients and help them navigate the health system, having seen it from both sides.’    
Now, five years since remission, Dr Woods feels she has plenty to look forward to in her future.
‘I am so excited to watch my family grow [and] I am tentatively becoming a little more career- focused again, but this time always making sure I maintain proper balance with my personal life,’ she said. 
‘I’m most looking forward to being the type of family GP that watches my patients’ families grow alongside my own.’

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Prof Max Kamien, AM   23/10/2019 8:10:35 AM

Bravo Karen Woods and her support team. Doctors often make bad patients because we can always see how our experiences could be made better. In turn this does make doctors better doctors. I would recommend that medical colleges recognise this by counting one week as a sick patient as equivalent to a triennium of CME.

Dr Imran Marzook   23/10/2019 8:45:48 AM

Congratulations on getting through it all. Sitting in the radiology department right now waiting for my scan, I can totally empathize. I hope the RACGP has a plan to advocate for those of us in this predicament with a major health history after fellowship where getting income protection & other insurance is near impossible. Patients can't believe it when I tell them we have no sick leave or any other benefits. My advice to young registrars & fellows is to get insurance as soon as you leave your hospital job as an employee. The college needs to inform, educate & help our members with this.

Dr Christine Troy   23/10/2019 10:00:44 AM

Congratulations Karen, hard work and determination have made your dreams come true. Career, family and Health. Your personality and mental strength will heal your patients as they have healed you.

Dr Amanda Badam   24/10/2019 3:35:18 PM

Dear Karen
Thankyou so much for sharing your storey. You are truly an inspiration for other doctors, no matter where they are in their journey as well as to your patients.
As they say it takes a patient to know a patient. Congratulations for your fellowship- well deserved . Enjoy the balance between your career,motherhood and your family life and cherish every day with its blessings.

Dr H Spencer   24/10/2019 6:40:37 PM

I would like to applaud both Karen and the comment by Dr Marzook- I have paid a fortune in income protection over the years and due to increasing expense with age and lifelong excellent health, nearly cancelled it, only to fall seriously ill with a complicated appendicitis and taking 6 months off work. Without the cover I would have had to close my practice . As my lawyer husband always says , plan for the worst and hope for the best!

Dr Hema Iyer   26/10/2019 9:52:31 AM

Yes personal adversaties your health or family members illheath does bring you in touch with experience as health consumer .It does make you more compassionate as a doctor and see them as a person dealing with illness rather then the illness itself.

Dr Hema Iyer   26/10/2019 9:52:52 AM

Yes personal adversaties your health or family members illheath does bring you in touch with experience as health consumer .It does make you more compassionate as a doctor and see them as a person dealing with illness rather then the illness itself.