From drought to flood in a flash

  • Dr Arvin Selvanathan
James Cook University
Linda Souter, College of Medicine and Dentistry Communications

As James Cook University medical graduate Dr Arvin Selvanathan begins his intern year at Mackay Base Hospital, he has reflected on the experiences that have made him the doctor he is today.

In 2019, the final year medical student headed off to his rural placement at Winton, with no idea that it would be a life changing experience.

Arriving in the small county town in outback Queensland, the Canadian student was confronted with a community that had been suffering the effects of drought for 15 years.

“It was so dry and desolate,” said Dr Selvanathan.

However, things were about to change.

“A few weeks into my placement it started to rain and you could see change in the community. People were really happy - the drought was well and truly over.”

But the celebrations were short-lived. With the rain continuing to bucket down, it wasn’t long before the area began to flood.

It went from depression from the drought, to elation, and then the realisation of the situation at hand,” Dr Selvanathan said. “So many people lost their livelihoods, millions of dollars’ worth of stock gone.”

The small town became marooned from the outside world and it was all hands on deck to help out.

“The majority of the news coverage centred on Townsville and there wasn’t as much attention being paid to the small country towns – that was pretty disheartening.”

The two doctors at the Winton Hospital, supported by Dr Selvanathan, swung into action.

“In a situation like this you are some of the only people there that can actually do something and who people will listen to,” Dr Selvanathan said.

“The farmers won’t leave their homes – that’s all they know. But they will come to see a doctor.”

The biggest concern for the medical team was the mental health of the community.

There were a number of online resources delivered by Townsville psychologists and psychiatrists that guided the team on how best to deal with the situation.

“We planned outreach programs for mental health screening as well as vaccinations. Early intervention for mental health is critical.”

The team also delivered much-needed supplies such as bread to the outlying properties.

“It was quite an experience to see the community come together like that - everyone pitched in to help.

“I don’t know when you would ever get a 15-year drought and then a flood straight after again. It was a once in a lifetime experience.”

The floods had a profound effect on Dr Selvanathan and affirmed his view on the importance of rural medicine.

“Being a doctor in that town actually enables you to cause change and to provide services that people require.”

Having grown up in Canada, life in a small country town in Queensland was an eye-opener for Dr Selvanathan.

“Everyone was lovely, some of the nicest people you would meet and they were always up for a chat,” he said. “I remember when I first arrived I went to the pharmacy and there was a car out the front with no one in it and the engine was running. You would never see that anywhere - you would think someone is going to steal this. But it’s just normal there. Everyone trusts everyone.

“It’s like living with a sense of ease and peace, there is no need to worry.”

Throughout his degree with JCU, Dr Selvanathan had a range of placements that have provided real life experiences.

“I think the media portrays medicine as very intelligent, very logical and very ordered. For example, this is the disease and this is the treatment. But what I realised over time is that it a lot deeper than that. You really have to get involved in a person’s life. Even with all the information in the world, without being able to talk to a person, medicine doesn’t work.”

“If you spend the time getting to know the patient you reap the rewards in the long run when they present again. You know their history and are able to pinpoint the cause. You see that a lot in rural medicine.”

In the future, Dr Selvanathan is hoping to join the Generalist Pathway. 

“I have a lot of varied interests. I enjoy paediatrics, geriatrics and I am quite interested in chronic disease management and being able to correct that. Being a GP is like merging all of my interests together.”

Now an intern at Mackay Base Hospital, Dr Selvanathan has reflected on his degree at JCU. He knows he made the right choice to head down under.

“The experience at JCU is unparalleled. You see a part of the country and a type of medicine that you would not otherwise see.”

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