He would have his own footy card, modified for science (making a glorious reach with his stethoscope) and he would be much easier to categorise. A sublime medical all-rounder, with grit to meet all diseases head-on.
All the other parts of his life would fall in behind the hero image of the cheerfully engaging doctor persevering late into the night in one of the most remote hospitals in Australia, in his adopted home of Nhulunbuy.
But Australia is not inclined to lionising its carers and Marco is not inclined to be anybody’s poster boy – a true advocate for the value of the champion team, rather than the team of champions in the health sector.
Instead, for a peek into the life of a man who should be famous, one only needs to read his email signature – too long to fit onto any conventional business card.
Marco is an Associate Professor at Flinders, Chief Medical Advisor of the NT, Director of Medical Services for the East Arnhem Regional Health Service, Medical Director of the NT Rural Generalist Pathway and the NT Pre-Vocational Medical Assurance Service and Senior Rural Generalist Surgeon at Gove District Hospital. But in a community-minded town like Nhulunbuy, he is also the dad of two children, the coach of 100 kids in the Nhulunbuy soccer team and the bloke who sometimes manages to fit in a few holes of golf at the local course.
The sum of these roles is a man who is energetic, enthusiastic – and perpetually busy. He fits in, in addition to the roles above, a day a month as a GP in Nhulunbuy and a day a week working in the emergency department, or doing rounds at Gove District Hospital, and when possible, teaching students, doctors in training and colleagues.
But the man who loved to provide individual care is spending increasing amounts of time caring for many thousands of people from afar as his expertise leads him into meetings, presentations and events where people try to learn how to build successful rural and remote medical facilities.
The city boy from urban Venezuela found his calling during his first year out of medical school, spending six months serving Indigenous people in the Amazon jungle with rudimentary facilities and minimal supplies – falling in love with rural and remote medicine, and sparking a lifelong commitment to humanitarian work.
He spent another 10 years rapidly acquiring a broad range of medical skills in Venezuela, England, Wales, and he was on his way to finish his advanced training as a surgeon after completing some of it in the UK.
Marco watched a number of friends head into humanitarian medical work, and he always felt a strong calling, but he thought that he needed to stick to a mainstream pathway, at least for a while.
“I had a job offer to move to London, before we moved to Spain, but there was nothing exciting about that particular job. As a Venezuelan, there is nothing more exotic than Australia, so I went to an expo on working in Australia as a doctor to see where that would lead me,” Marco says.
Job offers quickly flooded in from across Australia, but a couple of days later, the recruitment agency called to pitch a left-field idea. The tiny town of Nhulunbuy, 13 hours’ drive east of Darwin, needed a doctor.
“After 10 years of a mainstream medical career, it reminded me of the time in the Amazon, which I thought I would never experience again. I thought, why not do something different for six months and then travel around Australia, before I took up my next appointment in Spain?” Marco says.
The turquoise waters, white sands and quirky former mining town were attractive as soon as Marco landed, but it was the medical culture and opportunity that has kept the Briceno-Rossis in Nhulunbuy ever since.
“People say that to come here you may be mad, or a mercenary or misfit or a missionary – and I guess we all have a little bit of all of those here!” Marco says.
“Nhulunbuy is a very special place – it’s as remote as it gets, but it’s a beautiful town, with a golf course, BMX clubs, an Olympic-sized swimming pool and insane fishing. But more importantly, Nhulunbuy is an amazing community.
“Our kids were born here, and they have been able to grow up exposed to the world’s oldest living culture, as well as the beautiful country and a great lifestyle”.
“At the same time, the workforce tends to be transient here, but the people who come tend to have similar traits. They are adventurous, altruistic, interested in culture and social accountability – and open to friendships, so you have an interesting and enriching life.”
“I believe in excellence in medicine and academia and also being involved in policy, so that you can make change, and I previously had thought that a mainstream medical specialisation like surgery was the only way to have a voice, but I realised when I got to Nhulunbuy that I could have a very rewarding and sustainable career helping people, getting remunerated well and build a very fruitful career in rural generalist medicine.
“I stepped into a welcoming, progressive culture and since I came, the hospital has grown from 10 doctors to 25 and we have integrated a whole range of additional workers and services.
“We are oversubscribed for interns, residents and registrar positions and I never have to advertise them. People come to Nhulunbuy because they want to be here, and they are seeing that the rural generalist pathway can be satisfying and influential.
“One of the reasons for that is that we have tried to create a model, so that when people feel like they need to move away for family reasons or another job, we maintain an ongoing relationship with them on a fly-in fly-out basis, and they continue to help us mentor the next generation coming through the ranks, and so they continue to provide care for patients that they have been engaged with for many years.”
“This is one of the most remote hospitals in Australia, but people keep coming back here because it’s so fulfilling, exciting and diverse.”
Marco thrives on teaching third- and fourth-year students on rotation through Nhulunbuy and says Flinders, Medical Colleges, Regional Training Organisations, the NT and the Commonwealth Governments among others have all been critical to the success of East Arnhem and Gove District Hospital, and to the elevation of Rural Generalist Medical health as a sought-after career pathway.
“This place is extremely special to me, and I will always be connected to Arnhem Land wherever I live, but as I take on more work that takes me away from here, we need to make sure there is strong succession planning and active steps to preserve the strong, excellence-focused culture that we have here.
“Over my career, I have realised that to run a successful, sustainable health service, it is critical to invest in education and training,” Marco says.
“If you don’t, then excellence suffers, vision and passion suffers, and succession planning also suffers – and also if you don’t, then you may be in the position where many rural and remote hospitals find themselves, understaffed, closing down services and not attractive to doctors.
“Education and training is the lifeblood of the pipeline that will keep developing great health services here.”
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