How I am turning into my mother.


Photo by Eliza Berlage

This is the text of a speech I gave at Glebe Talks on April 20.

This is a story about me, and how I’m turning into my mother.

I grew up in a hospital. I wasn’t sick. in fact I think it might have contributed to my excellent immune system. I wasn’t in a bed, I was usually hiding in one of those big comfy lazy boy recliners watching game shows in the afternoon, or spinning around on an office chair and annoying everyone at the nurses’ station, or eating biscuits in the tea room. There were bright lights, and it smelt like disinfectant and generic roast dinners. Sometimes I’d hear the screams of women in labour, which was interesting for a child with, as yet, no sex education.

I grew up in the country, in a town in the Hunter Valley, and my mother is a hard-working country GP. All day in the doctors’ surgery, house calls after hours when my brother and I would wait in the car or in strangers’ living rooms, and in the middle of the night delivering babies in the maternity ward. Long hours, and the reality of being almost constantly “on call”, which is a phrase I was familiar with long before I knew what it meant – along with “put a drip in”, “do an ECG” and “bloods”.

My grandfather was a doctor too, although I don’t remember ever seeing him come home from work or talk about patients on the phone. That was before my time.

When people asked me “are you going to be a doctor like your mum”, I never really knew what to say. My marks would have been good enough if I had worked a bit harder. I would sometimes say “no, it’s too much work” or something like that, which didn’t feel true. I just really didn’t think I was smart enough to do it, and failure would have been too hard to bear.

I thought I wanted to be a writer and travel the world.

Then I became a writer and travelled the world. I must say, it was a lot of fun.

Fast forward to late 2014. I was 25 and my quarter-life crisis was starting to take hold. I needed a change, and I didn’t know what. I saw no future for me in anything I already knew how to do.

Outside a house near Bondi Beach, I saw something nice at a garage sale. It was an old-fashioned doctor’s bag, leather and spacious – one of those ones you’ve seen in old movies and cartoons with the handle at the top. I bought it for $10 and felt pretty smug. But why? I wasn’t the doctor. My housemate Jen was the doctor. My mother Isobel was the doctor. They should have the bag. Not me. The bag sat in my living room looking at me.

I went to a school reunion and somebody asked me, “are you a doctor yet?” I was ashamed. I wasn’t a doctor. 

Soon after, I was at a low point. I was working in a casual job I didn’t like, with people around me far more qualified than me who didn’t like it either. I won’t name the company I was copywriting for, but one of the products was a pubic hair trimmer called “Bikini Genie”.

Jen came drinking with me one weeknight. I told her I needed to do something different. I was going back to uni – to be a social worker. She told me not to. “I know you, and I know that you’re not going to like it.” (All you social workers – I think you’re amazing! But she was right about this.)

“Why don’t you try to get into medicine?”

I was stunned. I felt like she had seen something that I couldn’t. She told me she had thought about it before – and even more surprising, some of her friends had mentioned it.

I decided that night, at Frankie’s Pizza. That was a good decision. It was followed shortly after by a bad decision: entering the “rockstar karaoke”.

I woke up the next day and felt something new. Lights had been switched on: the path before me was illuminated. Even with all the cheap wine, I had a clear head. After years of working with words, and ideas, and sounds that float on the air and become nothing, I was going to start doing something real.

Within two weeks I had applied to sit the GAMSAT, and in the summer I started studying. I bought an exercise book and wrote “Audentes Fortuna Iuvat” on the front cover. Fortune favours the bold. It was a vast amount of science. I’d seen some of it in Year 12 chemistry, but most of it was entirely new.

And it was so beautiful! It was so fascinating. Learning about how ions cross the membranes in the cells that allow you to move and think, how the body balances itself so exquisitely, not losing an extra drop of what it needs.

And so many memories started to surface. I thought of being in the supermarket with my mother when she was approached by people she knew in our town – her patients, who cared about her. That always made me feel proud, that she had such a connection with the people who came to her for help.

And when my grandfather passed away last year, so many people told me that he had been their family’s doctor, for generations. Some time before, I’d sat down with him and recorded his memoirs. He told me about his time as a young medical student in Queensland, in the era before antibiotics use was widespread. Working as a doctor on a cruise ship, and in a remote logging town in Canada, and in Papua New Guinea, and of course in his practice in Cessnock, which he handed down to my mum. I was so impressed.

I felt buoyant with purpose, like I’d finally found the right current in a vast ocean.

An image of myself as a medical student, as a junior doctor, as a specialist, started to take form for me.

So I studied, late into the night with classical music in the background, more conscientiously than I ever had in my life. I worked through a gigantic textbook and about a thousand online science videos. I couldn’t get enough of it. And after some months, I did the exam, and I passed.

That was last year. Which means it’s my second year of trying to get into medical school. I got very close last time, which astounded me. It validated me. I felt that after wasting so much time, I’d finally arrived at something worth doing.

Just a few weeks ago, I finished the whole cycle again. This time, I doubled down. I didn’t just stop going out, I actually left town and lived in a house in the bush for a while, studying all day.

Soon I’ll get the results, and then will come the tedious applications, and interviews, and, if I’ve done what I was meant to do, this time next year I’ll be right in the thick of it.

So that’s where I am now. Just somebody who has taken a huge chance and will now be a student again, way into my thirties. Through all of this a whole lot of people have told me that I’m “brave” and they’re really “inspired” that I took the plunge. I don’t know. I just think that medical school sounds easier than trying to make a career in journalism!

Well that’s not entirely true. I’m on my way to turning into my parents, like we all might do. And that bag that I bought at the garage sale, I’ve actually started using it.