On Australia Day in 1998, Dr Cate Pritchard, then a registrar undertaking her GP training in the small Top End town of Katherine, started the day never anticipating the devastation that was about to grip the region.
Hours later, Cate was one of the 5,000 Katherine residents to be turned into refugees in their own backyards by the torrential floods which evolved into one the worst natural disasters to ever hit the region since colonial times.
“I’d just resumed my GP training after having children, when another registrar and I went through the Katherine floods,” she explained.
“Our stuff was literally all washed away.
“The training organisation back then gave us a huge financial gift to help us get back on our feet, which was amazing.
“I tell this story because I know NTGPE would have the same philosophy in the same circumstances, and that’s why I’m proud to be a part of the organisation, helping the next generation of GPs.”
Cate has always had a passion for rural and remote health, perhaps stemming from her start in life, being born in Port Moresby and then spending her early years in Coomalie Creek and Batchelor in the remote NT.
“After that I had a more normal, ordinary upbringing, but I think that’s where my love of the NT must have come from,” she said.
Cate, recently named the 2020 NTGPE GP Supervisor of the Year, says her journey into medicine was inspired by her mother’s inability to fulfil her own young ambition to be a doctor.
“When my Mum turned 16 she won a scholarship to study medicine at Sydney University,” Cate said.
“Her father was a farmer who couldn’t afford her board in Sydney for six years, so he said she couldn’t do medicine.
“I guess I figured that if I did medicine I would be making my Mum happy. Whatever I did, I just wanted to help people.
“And I always wanted to be in the bush or a country town setting. I’ve always enjoyed places uncluttered by human beings. It made sense to me to go to places where there weren’t many doctors, and I would be needed.”
After studying medicine at Monash University in Melbourne, Cate decided to pursue a career as a rural GP.
“Being in a hospital wasn’t an obvious thing for me. I wanted to look after people from birth to death, and be an old-fashioned GP who families trusted with their health,” she said.
“I lived in Katherine for 28 years where I was lucky enough to experience GP work with continuity of care, and to have my children there.
“There are many GPs who see whoever comes in the door, then that person may see a different doctor the following week, and that’s a very unsatisfying way of delivering primary health care in my opinion.”
After a fulfilling career as a GP in the NT, Cate is now a medical educator at NTGPE based in Darwin, providing, designing, and participating in quality and contemporary education, training, and support to GP registrars.
“I think NTGPE’s role in the training of GPs is vital,” she said.
“It’s personal and it’s specific to the NT environment. It’s a mix of the city, country and remote, and they’re all different.
“NTGPE has a very ethical, collegial, thorough, flexible, and adaptable approach to its role, and it’s very registrar-centric.
“All RTOs such as NTGPE have been set up to make sure that the medical workforce exists to serve the health care needs of Australians.
“If our GPs don’t end up practising in the NT, then we want them to be good at what they do wherever they go in Australia, and NTGPE helps facilitate that.”
Cate says that NTGPE prioritises excellence in education, and promotes ongoing education among its supervisors and medical educators.
“As a supervisor, there is a lot of support from NTGPE to help them get training, clinical education, and maintain their own professional development, as well as support for their supervision,” she said.
“I enjoy watching people early in their career, learning and discovering what it’s all about – there is amazing talent out there. I enjoy helping people along the way, especially as a remote doctor.
“I have kept in touch with a lot of the registrars I have supervised, and those long-term relationships are great.”
After being named NTGPE GP Supervisor of the Year, Cate praised her family, including her public health physician husband and their three sons for helping her to fulfil her mother’s dream.
“The award was totally unexpected, and I think I received it just for doing what I love,” she said.
“My husband has been a great support over the years, and I’ve got a great family behind me.”
Cate says the key traits of being a rural or remote GP are curiosity, adaptability, resilience, interest in people, willingness to learn new ways of looking at the world, and leadership skills which include being an effective member of a team.
For herself, she has no regrets at all about her career choice, as she’s gradually moved away from hands-on GP work to educating future GPs.
“As a GP, I enjoyed gaining and honouring the trust of people in the most vulnerable times of their lives and their family’s lives, and experiencing the culture and wisdom of people from different backgrounds, which includes doctors as well as patients,” she said.
“I even got to fly to work over the years – not many people can say that!”
“I aim to keep teaching and mentoring as I head towards retirement, although I do miss seeing my patients. I’ve had the privilege of delivering babies, and there’s nothing that beats that.”
And it is when telling of bringing children into the world that Cate’s eyes light up with tales of her time in the Territory.
“A few years ago, I got to go to work by boat across the Waterhouse river,” she said.
“It was a little tinnie and the fellow was going really quickly between the trees because there were floodwaters everywhere.
“I was ready to leap out if I thought he was going to crash into a tree, so that was really exciting, bringing back an expectant mum who was about to have her baby to take her to hospital.
“Our current model of care includes birthing in hospital for the safety of mother and baby, however the last baby I delivered was in the remote Aboriginal community of Ngukurr on the Roper River.
“The pilot needed to fly out of the community and kept saying ‘We’ve got to go, we’ve got to go’, but I said I couldn’t as I was delivering a baby.
“So, the pilot went home, and the medical student and I flew home the next day.”
For Cate, she does what she has to do, because it’s where her passion lies.