Air Force loss becomes rural medicine gain

A Rocketship profile: Dr James Telfer

by David Gilchrist

Hospital, Luganville on Espiritu Santo
“It is not entirely altruistic, that I just want to go out and help and be selfless about it. I do get something out of this. That is, I get to go on an adventure. I get to see part of the world I haven’t seen before. I guess the rewarding part is that I get to help people at the same time and be part of something that’s bigger than just going in and providing medical care.”

In his quiet, easy-going way, Dr James Telfer is talking about why the opportunity to volunteer for Rocketship appeals to him. For James, working with Rocketship, when travel permits, offers the opportunity for adventure, a chance to explore and enjoy a challenge different to his routine as a rural doctor.

James has experience. He worked for Rocketship providing education and clinical support for two weeks in mid-2019 in Vanuatu. During that time, he worked in the Northern Provincial Hospital, Luganville on Espiritu Santo in Paediatrics and occasionally in the Emergency Department. 

“The Rocketship opportunity of working with locals and improving their delivery of care as well, really appeals to me. Knowledge not passed on is knowledge lost,” he said. His experience was more than an extension of his regular work. James said the Rocketship experience was a chance to learn more about himself and more about medicine.  “Rocketship volunteering is another challenge to life and something to do that can fit into what I already do, but not replace it,” he said.

James said that he would consider volunteering again although future commitments required him to balanced that volunteer work with his family life and his work commitment in Stanthorpe.

James Telfer’s work with Rocketship is one of the latest adventures in his medical journey that started in his home town of Renmark in South Australia’s Riverland, three hours’ drive from Adelaide. It started when James was around 17-years-old.

For James, his young life was a life framed in the purview of the banks of the River Murray in a region known for impressive ochre-coloured cliff tops, wetlands brimming with birdlife and riverscapes ripe for adventure. All James needed to do, was to find his adventure and figure out how to take it. The trouble was, James was a boy of the country without a desire to become a doctor.

Instead James Telfer embraced a passion for flying that he’d developed as a young boy of about 9-years-old. The passion grabbed his attention when his father took him on a flight from Renmark to Adelaide. He saw below him the patchwork of orchids and vineyards, and cliffs along the river where golden crags glow at sunset, the mystery of ancient red gum forest, river channels that meander lazily through a landscape that shelters birdlife and provides a safe harbour for indescribable wonder. And there he was, in the sky above it all.

Flight training called

So, straight out of school, James went into the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra and from there to pilot training.

He recalls ADFA was an interesting experience for a 17-year-old country boy who was “easily distracted.” James found himself distracted by an environment that seemed to appreciate success on the sporting field or in the physical exertion of military training over academic achievement, and consequently his hope of graduating as a pilot was scuppered when he was cut from the course within a month of graduation.

With that, he stepped sideways into Air Traffic Control. Although in total, James gave the RAAF 10 years of service, the loss of his opportunity to become a pilot had him searching for a new career direction from the moment he was scratched from the pilot training.

"I had some soul searching, working out who I was in life.

“It was a personal growth time,” James recalls. “I was 21 when I failed the pilots’ course. I had some soul searching, working out who I was in life.”

In retrospect, he recalls that the ADFA study had not been ideal for him. As he says, “it took me down some pathways that are not consistent with who I am or who I wanted to be.”

Over six years of Air Traffic control, James Telfer realised that, work-wise, he was most interested in people and finding opportunities to continue to learn. Eventually the idea of doing medicine appeared on his radar and became the proverbial career high frequency signal in his radar search for a rewarding career pathway forward.

A year after he left the RAAF in air traffic control in Townsville, James completed a Graduate Diploma of Education in 1999 at Adelaide University to improve his chances of being accepted into medicine. Although he enjoyed teaching, he worried that he would not be a good teacher. He knew that medicine would fulfil him as the person that he had come to understand that he’d become over the preceding decade.

Although he hankered to return to Townsville, having enjoyed the north Queensland lifestyle, he was accepted into medical school at Flinders University and took with him a clearer understanding of himself and, as his inspiration, he had come to highly regard a Renmark GP that had a reputation for his interest in the community, his dedication to his patients, and an innate sense of humanity.  That inspiration helped direct James towards being a rural doctor – a rural doctor with a desire to return to tropical Queensland.

“When I got into medicine at Flinders University, I wanted to be a rural doctor,” James recalled. James graduated from Flinders in 2003 after taking on a Queensland Health Rural Scholarship which bonded him to working in rural Qld. As a result, James picked up an internship in Mackay. By the time he went to work in Mackay, his life had changed. James explains, “I went back to Adelaide single and returned to Qld married to Bec.” Bec and James had their first child in his second year in Mackay. “All of a sudden,” James recalls, “my priorities changed in terms of where I was willing to go with a small baby.”

An opportunity to do anaesthetics brought the young family south to the Darling Downs capital Toowoomba. Following Toowoomba, the couple considered St George, Roma, Stanthorpe and Kingaroy as potential rural service locations. James and Bec took time while in Toowoomba to visit Stanthorpe and fell in love with the town.

In a little temperate twist, James’ work in Queensland has landed him not in the tropics but potentially the coldest location in the state. Nonetheless, James says the tiny town is, “everything I hoped it would be and probably more.”

A good person

Talk to James Telfer and you soon realise that his journey from Renmark to Medicine via the Royal Australian Air Force had seen him define himself not so much as a doctor, air-traffic controller or a pilot but as simply a good person.

“I have the opportunity with the skillset that I have to contribute to being a good person in ways that other people might not. That is, to treat my patients as best as I possibly can – as human beings as well as medical problems – so to speak.”

That means James looks to define himself on being a good father as much as he is a good doctor. In relation to both, he gives the sense that both are still a work in progress. He says, like other Gen Xers he believes that he’s learnt to balance life a little better than older generations. “It comes down to not making work our life. It is part of life but it is not our only life,” he says with a certain circumspect attitude. It is an attitude to life with which he largely credits having developed from his wife Bec.

With that in mind, when asked if James Telfer is different now to the young man that once wanted to a fighter pilot and he smiles a boyish smile and said, “I am still a boy inside – still with the love for speed. But I have changed for the better.”

 

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Cover image copyright Tourism and Events Queensland