Tom Ayton, a Senior Resident Medical Officer in Sydney, interviews James Dent, one of the Surfing Doctors crew about getting involved in the organisation, what a typical day looks like and the work of the organisation.
Tom: Hi James, maybe we can start by hearing a bit of your background, where you grew up, your path to medicine and where you are at in your career at the moment?
James: I was fortunate enough to grow up on the South Coast of WA in Albany. My earliest memories were of jumping in the back of the ute and heading to the beach with my brothers and I’ve been hooked to surfing and the ocean ever since.
Amongst travels I completed a physio degree at Notre Dame in Fremantle before making the decision to pursue medicine soon after. I completed my medical degree at the University of Wollongong before returning to Albany for my internship, residency and commencement of provisional ED training with ACEM. I’m currently in the thick of primary exam study.
Tom: How did you become involved in Surfing Doctors?
James: I met Dr Phillip Chapman a number of years before starting my medical degree and learnt about this group of like-minded medics and how the group worked. Dr Chapman is a really talented and passionate surfer with a big South African personality, he is the Head of Emergency at Busselton Hospital. As soon as I heard how the organisation worked I knew I was a good fit. I had an elective with the organisation originally and have since attended 3 conferences and been involved in a number of camp doctor stints over the years.
Tom: Can you explain a bit more about the organisation to our readership?
James: We are a bunch of surfers who work in all areas of medicine from around the world. We are a not for profit organisation that aims to assist locals and travelling surfers with medical needs in remote parts of the planet. A large part of our organisation is also assisting with medical elective in remote surfing destinations. In recognition of our time and skillset we are often given free or heavily subsidised accommodation, food and drink. The concept is aimed at improving the safety and health of these remote locations whilst getting to surf the best waves on the planet.
Tom: Do you have to be a good surfer to join the organisation?
James: Normally we suggest being comfortable in head height waves that break on reef, most of the waves we travel to are intermediate to advanced waves with an element of risk if treated with respect.
Tom: When did you start surfing?
James: I began surfing regularly when I was around 8 years old, I found a snapped board from one of my brothers and convinced my parents to help me fix it.
Tom: What got you interested in it (or why do you enjoy it)?
James: There are so many elements to surfing which make it unique and special. The first being the absolute escape from the hustle and bustle of regular life, when you dive under that first wave it’s like hitting the reset button and anything that’s been weighing on you can be put to the side. Secondly, getting in touch with nature, marine life and solitude is amazing for the brain and self-reflection. Lastly, it is extremely fun and allows you a space to take measured risk. All of these aspects enable you to be a more resilient measured person when out of the water.
Tom: What do you enjoy about the trips and the work you do with Surfing Doctors?
James: Obviously surfing every day and getting back in touch with nature is a highlight but I think the most rewarding thing is the relationships that you build within communities and with people from all walks of life. A small act of goodwill can go a long way in some of these remote locations. The local communities are extremely resilient and the appreciation they have for what often feels like very little is enormous. Having the opportunity to mingle with like-minded colleagues is also very refreshing considering we often work in sterile regimental environments. Whilst there is an element of medical “work” to be done these trips are still very much a holiday and a break from daily grind.
Tom: What does a typical day look like?
James: The different placements differ quite a bit, however, a typical day in a place at Garajagan Bay, Java would look something like this.
The medical assistance aspect is completely ad hoc. When assistance is required you step up, when you’re not required you enjoy paradise for everything it has to offer. We are also incorporating a regular day a week clinic for the local villages at many of the locations. There is also scope to make your stint how you like it.
Tom: Finding time for interests outside of medicine helps me stay balanced, happy and calm when things become busy at work, how does surfing help you and your career?
James: I couldn’t agree more, medicine is incredibly rewarding and we are privileged to be in the field but we can all agree that it comes with its challenges and stress. When we are in a difficult workplace, tired, stressed, make mistakes and feeling the pressure it’s incredibly important to be able to switch off and to have an escape. There is no judgement, no deadlines, no rules and no artificial stimulation in the ocean – it’s a perfect escape. When surfing more dangerous conditions it also gives you an environment where you can take risks and deal with stress. Making decisions in stressful situations is key to being a great clinician, if you become more comfortable with this dilemma then medicine becomes far more sustainable and fun.
Tom: Do you find you still have time for it?
James: I’m getting in the water at least twice a week at the moment. My sessions are a bit shorter than normal as I’m ramping up the study for my primary exam preparation.
Tom: Do you have any other hobbies or interests?
James: I try to hit a golf ball as much as I can. I’m a keen snowboarder and have completed a few seasons over the past decade, otherwise I have an active dog that needs running most days. Previously I was a keen Australian rules football player.
Tom: There is an annual Surfing Doctors conference each year. Where is it held, who speaks and who is it relevant for?
(The Surfing Doctors hold a week-long annual conference in G-land which is accredited by the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine (ACEM) and The Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists)
James: Yes, we have a surfing doctors conference each year which has previously been held in Java, Indonesia. We normally get inundated with requests so have reduced the number to 25 members. COVID has put our conference this year on hold and we will monitor the situation moving into next year. The conference covers a range of topics which relate to critical care in the tropical remote setting. We have consultants from Emergency Medicine, Anaesthetics, Opthalmology, General Practice and Orthopaedics who give presentations and run simulation activities. It is relevant to any keen surfer who works in medicine.
Tom: Do you stay in touch with any of the members?
James: Absolutely, we keep in touch with regular catch ups and communication.
Tom: How would our readership go about become involved in the organisation?
Tom: Are there any logistical considerations such as insurance, prerequisites, level of training, vaccinations, etc.?
James: I strongly suggest comprehensive travel insurance, an up to date ALS completion and checking in with your regular GP for immunisation requirements for the particular region that you are travelling to. You can become a member if you are a student or a specialist. As far as the legalities are concerned we have acted under good faith with full disclosure, respect and common sense and have not had any difficulties or complications associated with medicolegal logistics over the past 10 years.