Gihan Hapuarachchi Doctor of Medical Science third year
How did you get to where you are now?
It all started when I was a kid, I had really bad asthma. My parents came from Sri Lanka, they weren’t too established back in the day and my asthma was so bad that I had to take my medication through a nebuliser, which is basically a mask that helps you with breathing. As a kid it’s really not fun because it’s loud and you have to sit there for at least half an hour, inhaling fumes.
I had to go to the hospital for this treatment, and since my parents were often working they weren’t able to be there. If you can imagine drowning or not being able to get air into your lungs, the only thing you care about in that snap shot of a moment is to breath, is to get oxygen from out here, into there, that is all that matters. So the doctor was someone I thought was a lifesaver.
And then more importantly there was this big cafeteria, and I would sit there, eat my food and play arcade games. Sometimes the doctors would give me a dollar or two to play, and that made me happy. I thought ‘that’s so cool, I want to be a doctor’.
My mum was always saying ‘make sure you make the most of your opportunities, and what you have in this country.’ They came from Sri Lanka, they never finished university, they pretty much finished a year 10 equivalent. My dad is qualified as a pastry chef, that’s his highest qualification but he has built his own house twice now and manages a production company that makes bread and cakes. So for a man who had 6 brothers and sisters, a couple of pairs of socks and walked 6kms to school everyday, he’s done pretty well!
That’s good motivation, when I look at my parents I think, yes I’m studying medicine and people in this community think that’s a great opportunity and I should be very grateful and I am, but for me its nothing compared to what they did, for them to move to another country, to somewhere they’ve never been before, a language they’ve never learned and to come to where they are, raise myself and my younger sister, is enough motivation for me in almost anything I do.
The medicine inspiration didn’t really stop there once I got to High School, I became more realistic thinking I can’t just go into a career off an experience I had as a child.
In grade 11 I did work experience, I went to my school guidance officer and I said to her ‘is there anything in the medical field’ she laughed at me, she literally laughed at me. My school was renowned for trades and engineers… medicine not so much. I said can you look into it for me there is probably something out there for me. So she looked into it for me and sure enough two alumnus were doctors, one of them is a private pediatrician who also works in the public system and the other one (they are brothers) works at the Wesley as the coordinator for medical training, he looked after all the new doctors and the young students, third and fourth years at Griffith.
The first pediatrician was great, I got to see what it was like to work as a doctor from the second you bumped in, to the second you bumped out. In the morning he would spend in the private clinics and in the afternoon he would work in the public sector. As you probably know private doctors earn considerately more money, whereas in the public system it is literally whoever walks in the door you treat them, it was amazing to see number one what a doctor does day to day and also just the care he gave to the private patients there was no difference to the care he gave to the public patients. I couldn’t fault him. I thought wow this is an interesting profession the real sense of equality hit home for me as a young idealistic year 11 student.
That was good motivation, and then in the other placement with the other doctor, I got to see how you get to that point. It was amazing because I could see the young doctors and the third and fourth Griffith medical students and ironically I’m at Griffith now and that is literally me next year, I still remember being in this little simulation room, with this dummy and the nurse could control the dummy and simulate a heart attack or respiratory failure, and the medical students had to work as a team and save the life and I still remember these three students and they absolutely failed but they were really smart afterwards they spoke through exactly what they should’ve done, and I was thinking wow they are so smart, they just didn’t do what they said, and the nurse said you’ve just got to have that confidence. I was thinking that will be me one day but not for a long time and here I am now still remembering that experience and thinking that will be me next year.
So that gave me motivation propelled me through year 11 and made sure I got the marks in year 12. Two key reasons I wanted to go to Griffith firstly I was offered a scholarship and the other factor was that I could do two years in Brisbane and then move down to the Gold Coast for 4 years, which meant I got to stay at home for the first two years and get an understanding of how the whole university thing works and earn a bit of money. Moving down would give me good independence and life experience. Considering I am a straight out of school student, not a post graduate student, I think its really important as a doctor to have some maturity, confidence and a lot of interpersonal skills. That’s why I love the ambassador job that I do, I meet such a wide variety of people, I talk at high and low socio-economic schools, and all over the place. And as a doctor that’s what you do, you meet people from all different backgrounds and the more you understand people the better you can tailor not only their treatment but also the way you talk to people.
Another factor is somewhere in the middle of year 11 and 12 I did this thing called the National Youth Science Forum (NYSF) it was a really big turning point in my life, people say I come across as confident and extroverted, before NYSF, I was introverted, I couldn’t talk to strangers, I couldn’t get up in front of a crowd and talk, I didn’t have a lot of self confidence.
This two week venture, which involved going to Canberra and seeing what its like to be a university student, there are speakers from all around the world there. World-renowned speakers, it was really inspiring. This program understands that lots of science students lack social skills and they really broke down the barriers and just let you express yourself and get to know the other 150 students. The whole program is run by people who went the year before, you don’t know that as a student you just think these people are so smart and good at everything.
I finished the two week experience, it was one of the greatest two weeks of my life, and I was very fortunate to be asked to come back again as a staff member and that’s where the leadership begun. As a staff member they teach you or they force you to learn, how to get up in front of people. They took me out on a leadership trek to Kununurra in rural Western Australia. We did a 70-kilometre trek through the Bungle Bungle Mountain Range, each day a different person would lead. NYSF was something that propelled me with confidence and motivation through year 12.
Not only did I have all this work experience with a medical goal in the back of my mind. But in the front of my mind I had learnt all these skills; how to talk to different people, how to get up in front of people and how to have that confidence.
I don’t think I’ve done anywhere as much work as I have in year 12 to this day, in fourth term I kicked into overdrive and went hard until the end. The cut-off was 99.6 for Griffith Med. I was lucky enough to get a 99.7 and they called me with scholarship, the Sir Samuel Griffith Scholarship. I still remember that day, my mum was crying and dad was really happy.
Then since that I’ve done 2 years of medical science where I’ve met a lot of amazing people and here I am now, second year into Medicine and absolutely loving it.
Do you have a piece of advice you would give to your first year self?
First year Gihan, I would say stop talking to so many girls, haha no what would I say…
Looking back as I said in year 12 I worked the hardest I’ve ever worked and then in undergrad, I didn’t work nearly as hard, I would’ve liked to have known that you never really stop learning, you never really know everything and the day you do, is the day you know nothing.
That’s one thing I’ve realised, especially in Medicine, some doctors have told me, people act like they’re ‘the man’ in Medicine, like they know it all but you really don’t there is so much out there, especially nowadays with the advancement of medical science, you just cannot know everything.
It’s good to have self-confidence, understand and be confident in your decisions but you can’t expect yourself to know it all.
The more I know about medicine the more I learn about the rest of the world and my life I think some people put medicine on a pedestal. I was in a bar last week, I was with my mate who does nursing and paramedics and we heard some guys talking about something my friend was really interested in, so we went and had a chat, introduced ourselves, my friend said I study nursing and paramedics and I just said I study health. We sit down and start talking, and they didn’t really pay much attention to me, I was giving good input, but then they asked me again, what did you say you study, and I told them Medicine, and then they started listening to me. As nice as that is, sometimes it makes me wonder is it a good thing that people change their attitude.
In a community people see it in so many ways, to some people the doctor is that high status person but to other people the doctor is that person you can talk to if you have any issues, the person who services the whole community, especially in rural communities, they are held in high regard but not in the same way as say a big city.
That’s what I like, that’s why in fourth year I’m hoping to do my 7 week rotation in Stanthorpe or Toowoomba, do my overseas elective in Nepal, and hopefully do ED at Logan. Try to move around rural QLD and Australia as much as I can.
What’s been your biggest challenge during university?
The toughest thing was learning how to learn in the best most effective way. The kind of knowledge I need to process, you cannot just fluff it, it’s not something you can cram the night before, this is knowledge you need to be constantly building upon, as with anything really. The best way to learn is to stick to it, I still feel like I can definitely improve.
But then also big picture stuff, in year 12 it was great I had this concrete goal of getting into Medicine to work towards. Now that I’m in, there are so many specialities that I will one day have to choose and now it’s a question of what areas do I focus on, I could study everything but that takes a lot of time. I find it difficult to balance sometimes. That’s not unique to medicine though it’s life, it’s so hard to balance everything, especially what you are doing, work, social life and not neglecting your family.
Do you have a life philosophy something you think about to keep you motivated?
Getting through med and keeping my mind open. Making the most of everyday is a big thing for me, living in the moment. I used to always plan everything and be very anxious about the future, whereas now I have figured out if I spend half my time worrying about what is going to happen, I’m not going to enjoy what is happening.
That’s a big realisation, something that took into my early twenties to figure out as well.
I feel like I grew so much this year by getting out of my comfort zone.
The ‘comfort zone’ is really an entrapment of your own imagination. Because a comfort zone is something you feel comfortable in, something you’ve defined, when really if you venture outside, you don’t know what’s out there and you can grow so much.
I went to Splendour in the Grass this year, I just did it on a whim, booking to travel japan alone was a whim, doing random road trips, and the people I have met, especially at Splendour.
I hadn’t been camping since high school. I met this guy called Brother Lock, there was this Big Amish tent at Splendour, and I thought oh yeah that’s cool, they’re probably not even Amish, but I stuck my head in to see what it was all about and I met this guy called Brother Lock, he was playing with a little steam train, because as you know Amish people don’t use electricity and so he was playing with this candle and introduced myself.
We had one of the deepest conversations I have had in my whole life, I just poured my heart out, told him all about my life what I’m doing and what had been happening in the few weeks that followed this, both before and after, before that my cousin had passed away from lupus, it’s an autoimmune disease that is very debilitating with no cure, she died at age 14. I was telling him about that and all the work I do for Hope for Health. And this guy just said to me. ‘You’ve got so much going on’ and I told him about worrying so much about the future. And he just said to me ‘why the rush, why the rush’ looked me in the eye and said ‘why the rush’ and I actually do not know why. Sometimes my mind is running at a million miles an hour, and I don’t know why and he said ‘why the rush, you need to stop and smell the roses’ and metaphorically he says ‘because roses aren’t just roses, they didn’t just pop out of the ground, you’re not just stopping to smell the roses that you’ve grown, you’re stopping to smell the roses that you’ve planted, that you’ve cultivated, that you’ve put fertiliser into, that you’ve watered every day, that you’ve watched, that you’ve trimmed.’ You deserve those roses, you deserve to stop and appreciate them. I never got his number, but maybe one day our paths will cross again.
You mentioned Hope for Health, I wanted to ask about the projects you’re involved in outside of uni?
Hope for Health, is a charity organisation working on a local indigenous, rural and international scale. I’m involved in the international portfolio so this year we have done things like; birthing kits, we raised enough for 400. The childbirth complications they have in places like Somalia is unheard of here, because we have the modern facilities we don’t even think about the sort of issues that rise in those conditions.
This year I’m hoping to stay in touch with Hope for Health.
A lot of it goes back to that science camp that gave me the confidence to start standing up in front of people, to volunteer and to get involved.
Whats on the horizon for you?
At this stage, keeping an open mind with Medicine, not actually aiming for one thing because I think that way I’ll still appreciate all the variety in Medicine and I want to keep up the eagerness to learn absolutely anything and everything until the day comes that I find the speciality that I want to get in to. And really developing good practical skills, it’s easy enough to read books all day but the harder stuff is putting in the time at the hospital.