Mentors inspire country doctor’s big city success

People are often surprised to learn that the sharply-dressed doctor Desmond Graham has two sleeves of tattoos, which he gets to mark significant moments in life.

When he was five, a doctor warned Desmond Graham’s parents that he would always struggle at school and be lucky to graduate.

After finishing high school he was determined to succeed and sat the test to study medicine – which he failed miserably.

Now approaching his final year of training to become a geriatrician, Desmond can look back on all his achievements at Westmead Hospital over the past seven years and confidently say he proved people wrong.

But perhaps the biggest hurdle the boy from Broken Hill had to overcome was his own self-doubt, and it taught him an invaluable lesson about the power of asking for help and personal resilience.

Desmond grew up in far-west NSW and studied at the University of Newcastle. He still hopes to fulfill his dream of becoming an “inner-city hipster”.

“I had a lot of trouble settling into Sydney. I’d never lived in a big city like this, didn’t really have any social connections and Westmead is such a big hospital,” Desmond said.

“I really struggled as an intern my first year out. I remember I called my mum and told her I didn’t think I was cut out to be a doctor.”

Desmond’s mum flew to Sydney to support her son and encouraged him to ask his supervisors in the hospital for assistance. It worked – by the end of the year he was awarded the Westmead Hospital junior doctor of the year.

“The mentality in medicine is you shouldn’t ask for help; people feel like they can’t tell senior doctors how they’re feeling because it will hurt their chances of getting onto a training program,” Desmond said.

“I try to educate students and junior doctors that that’s definitely not the case. I asked for help as an intern and it certainly hasn’t hindered my career or my achievements.”

While initially finding it overwhelming, Desmond decided to specialise in geriatrics due to the significant role doctors play in the later stages of people’s lives.

His experience inspired Desmond to get involved in medical education and pass his lessons on to the next generation of junior doctors.

Westmead Hospital has recognised his commitment, declaring him Medical Registrar of the Year in 2018 and giving him the Award for Excellence in Teaching by a Registrar this year.

“They’re awards that I’m more proud of because it means that I’ve helped my peers with their training. My biggest thing now is to try to give back and help the junior doctors coming through, because of the amazing mentors I had,” Desmond said.

“My dad used to always tell me a thing about trees and forests – when you look at a forest it’s completely overwhelming, but if you just see it as one tree at a time it becomes much more manageable. That’s what I tell people when they’re finding things particularly difficult.

“That’s why I got this tattoo of a forest with three birds above it, because no matter how dark things are, I’ve always got my mum, my dad and my sister looking after me.”

Each of Desmond’s tattoos carries significant meaning – the words “doors and corridors” is another one of his dad’s sayings regarding opportunities in life.

Desmond draws a lot of inspiration from his father, a country nurse who worked his way up to become the Tasmanian Health deputy secretary before a diagnoses of multiple sclerosis dramatically changed his life’s path.

Desmond’s first tattoo among two armfuls of ink was simply the words ‘fight or flight’, a reminder of his dad’s invaluable advice.

“My dad’s motto in life is always if anything bad happens, you either give up or you keep trying. So I got that tattoo because I had to take the long route into medicine and move away from my family, but all the hard work has been worth it.”