Meet Jill Benson and you’ll meet a mental-health practitioner, doctor and teacher. And she brings to that work love, humour, and kindness. It shows in her smile.
Her smile suggests that, for Dr Jill Benson AM, medicine is about more than just science. Her smile is a smile that brings with it that same sense of hope found in an early morning sunrise and the same sort of reassurance proffered in a warm welcome.
Ask Jill why she gives so much of herself to medicine and her response has a remarkable honesty about it.
“It is important not just to work for money. But to work because it’s something that you think is important. I’ve been lucky enough in my career,” she explains, “to be able to do both for a lot of my career.
I like to use the skills that I’ve developed to help people who don’t have the infrastructure and the resources that we have. Because I’ve spent a lot of time being a teacher, I like to teach the next generation of people in the country to take that over.”
“The healing power of love, humour and kindness should not be ignored…
Jill Benson’s willingness to bring a sense of humanity to her work isn’t surprising given that in 2010 she collaborated to write an article for the journal Mental Health in Family Medicine about providing mental health support to refugees.
She wrote, “The healing power of love, humour and kindness should not be ignored… The ability for patient and doctor to laugh together at a shared joke, to cry together with grief or horror, to look into the past or the future with another human being who is trying to understand – sharing these will take both doctor and patient to new places.”
The successes that Jill Benson’s humanitarian approach brings are bundled within the myriad positive memories she collects. She says that by balancing the positive memories against the experiences that come from the sea of troubles and natural shocks, which she sometimes faces in remote and rural medicine, keeps her going.
Jill explains. “I collect the positive stories. It’s easy to collect the negative stories because there are lots of them. But I collect the positive stories as well because they’re precious. You learn from the negative ones, but you keep the positive ones to keep you going,”
Jill said.That’s how she faces the apparently intractable difficulties that sometimes face those working in rural and remote medicine. It’s an approach she has brought to over two decades of working in Aboriginal health.Research supports the value of Jill’s strategy of finding balance and spending time giving help to others.“There is good research that says if you do
more than 20% of your work in something that aligns with your values and that you’re passionate about, you are less likely to suffer burn-out. And you are more likely to be a sustainable practitioner,” she said.
Jill’s career is a fine example of how well that approach works. Despite a very busy workload, she always makes sure that whatever she is doing aligns with her personal values. Then with a sense of pride she adds, “So, here I am at 65 still doing that. Still learning and still doing the volunteer work.”
She says that approach has given her the “bigger picture of what being a GP is about.”That approach is why Dr Benson’s work has been so varied including mainstream general practice as a practice owner, university health, corporate health, travel medicine, doctors’ health, public health (with a PhD in public health), research, mental health and medical education.
LESSONS FROM INDIGENOUS HEALTH
Dr Jill Benson still works in Indigenous Health as Medical Director of Spinifex Health Services providing health care to the most remote community in Australia – the Tjuntjuntjara community in the Great Victoria Desert region of Western Australia.
The Tinjutjuntjara community live in an unforgiving landscape of dune-fields that whisper as you walk, pitiless playa lakes that lay low and usually remain dry, scattered stands of marble gum, mulga and yarldarlba crouching low over spinifex grassland.
Such is the remoteness of that Western Australian community that travel to the community is difficult at the best of times.
Add on the Covid-19 Pandemic and the ability to travel became unreliable. Consequently, telehealth has largely had to suffice.
Through telehealth and because Jill’s long history with the clinic meant she knows the clinic patients very well, the clinic was able to continue to provide a high level of healthcare for chronic conditions, preventive activities and mental health issues.
“In many cases, and despite the reduced face-to-face encounters with visiting medical specialists, the increased use of telehealth sessions improved care,” she said.
Telehealth means the ability to have timely review and follow-up, the ability to deal with issues as they occurred and not just once a month and specialist referrals as needed and not just when they were scheduled to come out.
That understanding of the use of telehealth added to the invaluable medical knowledge and ability as a teacher that she originally brought to Rocketship almost two years ago.Jill’s work with Rocketship clearly matches her values as does the advice that she once received from an Aboriginal woman from Queensland. It is advice that describes Jill Benson’s own approach.
The Indigenous woman told Jill, “If you’ve come to help me, you’re wasting your time, but if this is about your own struggle for survival as well as mine, together we can make a difference.”And the thought of making a difference easily brings a trademark Jill Benson smile.