‘I’m learning to be less Irish and more Australian’

Doctors in Brisbane don’t know how lucky they are, says Aoife Rice who is glad to be one


This article forms part of a new series for Irish Times Abroad on the opportunities worldwide for Irish healthcare workers.

Although she misses her home in Westmeath, trainee paediatric surgeon Aoife Rice is grateful for the opportunities she has found in Brisbane. The 33-year-old studied medicine in Southampton in the south of England, but felt farther from home there than in Australia where she has a brother and a sister. After completing her intern year in Glasgow, she moved to Australia in 2009.

What took you to Australia?

I initially came for a year, intending to have a one-year working honeymoon. I knew I wanted to be a surgeon but thought I’d work with adults. When I got sent to the children’s hospital for a six-month rotation, I was petrified but I think of it now as fate. Paediatric surgery is a wonderful career and, nerdy as this sounds, I really love my job. We operate on babies and children up to age of 14. It’s a very diverse job, we operate on premature neonates – newborns – as small as 600g, who are often extremely ill and we’re trying very hard to save their lives. The next patient could be a big, strapping 80kg rugby player with a hernia.

The training takes seven years and I am finishing year three. We move usually every year and the training college can send us to any major city across Australia or New Zealand.

Was it difficult to get the appropriate visa?

When I came here, I worked as a junior doctor/house officer. Each specialty has a training college. Once you are accepted onto the training college, you begin work as a training registrar, working towards being a consultant. Unfortunately, to apply to become a training registrar, I had to have my permanent registration visa. This took three years to get. I even had to sit a test in English speaking, reading and writing.

Whilst waiting for this, I working as a ‘non-training registrar’ in paediatric surgery, but also adult urology, vascular and general surgery. Irish medics who want to pursue a training career in Australia should be mindful of the visa requirements.

Are Irish medical professionals well-received there?

I’m learning to be less Irish and more Australian so forgive me if I sound immodest! Irish doctors are well respected and well liked over here. We are known to be hard-working, reliable and friendly. In every department I’ve ever worked in, Irish doctors are in demand. I think we’re not afraid of hard work.

In the UK and Ireland, we are used to working long hours in old hospitals with considerable pressures on budgets and resources. We just get on with it. The general thinking among Irish medics is that the Aussie doctors don’t know how lucky they are. They are well paid, well treated and, certainly in metropolitan hospitals, work in modern, bright, well-resourced and properly-funded hospitals. The rosters are well-staffed with minimal gaps.

We recently had some Irish residents from Cork come to work in our department for 10 weeks. My bosses all noticed their work ethic and their impressive, “Yep, can do!” attitude. I also notice it when I receive phone referrals from Irish doctors in regional centres. They know their patients and are always appreciative and receptive of advice offered. Irish doctors are well educated, there are minimal gaps in their knowledge and they adapt quite easily and quickly to the Australian healthcare system. This goes for Irish nurses, physiotherapists and occupational therapists that I meet over here too.

What impresses you about working in Australia?

When I moved to Australia in 2009, there was talk of building a new paediatric hospital here, but nothing definite. We moved into that hospital in November 2014. It’s a great place. Although every hospital will have its critics, it really is a wonderful building and a great asset for the children and families of Queensland.

When I read about the protracted saga that is the new children’s hospital in Dublin, I despair. I am aware of charities fundraising for paediatric oncology services etc and I think it’s sad. Fundraising should be for extras such as comfort measures or family accommodation. It shouldn’t be for building refurbishment. The Irish Government has to prioritise children’s health services; Irish children deserve world-class treatment in the best facilities we can build.

What do you miss about home?

I miss Ireland, my family, my friends – and just Irish people and Irishness. I had my first baby last year. (I was well supported by my bosses as I tried to operate with a massive baby bump and during my maternity leave I was well paid.) This has certainly made life more challenging and when I’m working late and starting early and Hugo is too unwell to go to daycare I envy my colleagues who have grandparents and family members to call on.

We’re a very close family despite the distance. Viber groups and Facetime make things easier. We chat daily, but I know our parents miss us deeply.

We are lucky as my husband Cathal Nugent stays at home with Hugo three days a week. He works as a carpenter the rest of the time. (I don’t envy him working in the heat while I’m in an air-conditioned hospital.) I’m lucky that I have such a supportive husband who is willing to move around during my training and supports me working long hours and studying hard. I don’t think I could get through the 100-hour weeks, plus study plus parenthood without him.

Where do you see your future?

I love my job and I love it here. But I do miss Ireland and I’m not sure how I feel about raising Hugo as a little Aussie and not a little Irish boy. He definitely wears flip-flops more often than he wears wellies. I’d like to do a fellowship in the UK or Ireland after I finish training to see how our life might be if we did move home.

This article forms part of a new series for Irish Times Abroad on the opportunities worldwide for Irish healthcare workers.