“My parents always supported and encouraged me to be whatever I wanted,” she says. “And what I wanted was to go to medical school. But I didn’t think I would get in.
“So, I decided to go to uni and do science and see what eventuated.”
Growing up in Port Macquarie, just over four hours outside of Sydney, Chula says the only doctor she knew at that time was the family GP, Dr Nandini Subbiah, and no-one in her family had previously studied at university.
“Port Macquarie has changed now, but when I was growing up, it was quite limiting. We would have one trip a year to the ‘big smoke’ to go to the museum or a play. Kids in the city get so much more opportunity to do those things, and also to have valuable work experience.”
After completing her studies, Chula spent most of her 20s living and working overseas with her partner in West Papua, Papua New Guinea, Edinburgh and Italy, pursuing her scientific interests but continuing to think about medical school.
“I always had it lurking in the back of my mind. And as I worked more and more in the medical field, doctors would say, you should consider medical school. And I would say, I’m too old, it’s too hard, I’d never get in.”
But at age 33, when her partner became ill, “life suddenly seemed too short” to wait any longer.
“We realised this was an opportunity for us to live.”
To her astonishment, Chula had a “really easy run” into medical school and was accepted at both the universities of Sydney and Canberra, as well as Flinders University.
The deciding factor for which to choose was Chula’s passionate interest in Flinders’ Parallel Rural Community Curriculum (PRCC), into which she was also accepted. This program introduces third year medical students to the rigours, challenges and rewards of rural and regional medicine, in locations such as the Barossa, the Riverland, Hills Mallee Fleurieu, and the Greater Green Triangle.
“The PRCC program is designed to encourage doctors to go back to rural practice once they’ve finished. You enter uni knowing you’re going to spend 3rd year in the country, and I was so excited by that. A lot of graduates I met said training in the country was the best experience they’d had, and they all loved Flinders. That really sealed the deal.”
Read about Chula’s rural experience in Hamilton, in the Greater Western District Health Service of Victoria below.
Another key factor was winning the $3,000 Dr Lesley Shorne Memorial Scholarship, which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary. Eight female Flinders medical students have been supported through the generous contributions of donors towards this opportunity. Until her passing, Dr Shorne worked tirelessly to advance women’s health, including as a pioneer in cervical screening and leading forensic examiner in the medical and legal processes relating to sexual assault. Dr Shorne’s family generously created the scholarship at Flinders to continue her legacy in women’s health and advocacy, by supporting study costs for mature-entry female Doctor of Medicine students.
As the sixth Dr Lesley Shorne Scholar in 2017, and now in her final year of study, Chula says receiving this scholarship was a huge boost to her confidence—“being seen, the recognition, that someone has looked at you and gone, you’re on the right path”.
“It’s also nice to be recognised for hard work and as someone who is willing to commit to making the world a better place.
“Dr Shorne was a real trailblazer. To receive a scholarship from a woman who worked so hard in women’s health—the honour and recognition of this is huge.”
For Chula, it aligned perfectly with the strong pull she already felt towards women’s health.
“During my time on the island of Papua, I saw incredible amounts of suffering, trauma and hardship, and, more often than not, the burden was carried by the women. I’m passionate about women’s health and overcoming the challenges women face in accessing healthcare. And I’m passionate about supporting women in their journey as doctors and healers.”
Though she is only just completing her studies this year, Chula has already begun this mission, working on an extracurricular project with another woman at Flinders she considers a mentor and “shining light”, Associate Professor Rosalie Grivell.
“We’ve been working on a training program in West Papua for local doctors and midwives to support safer deliveries of babies and better outcomes for infant, child and maternal health.
“Our aim is to develop a clinic that covers a lot of things but ultimately trains and enables local people to train others, so it becomes sustainable.”
The scholarship and her own life experience also helped Chula overcome another aspect of medical school she anticipated would be daunting: returning to study as a mature student.
“We’ve been programmed to think you start a career at point A, and that’s the career you have forever. Then you’re supposed to have children, do this, do that. People have said to me, aren’t you a bit old to do this? Shouldn’t you be having kids?
“Imposter syndrome is also a big thing. You’re surrounded by all these brilliant, young, talented kids—they’ve just finished undergrad and they seem so on top of it. I turned up to the first lecture with a notebook and pen, and they were all on laptops.
“But you really do suffer more in your imagination than in reality. My age and experience have actually been a blessing, and I came to medicine at the right time for me. Coming earlier or later wouldn’t have been right.”
Like many final year medical students around the world, Chula has been anxious about the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on completing her studies, wondering first whether it would prevent her cohort from graduating, and then whether their graduation would be accelerated—as has happened in the UK—propelling them headfirst as new doctors into a health crisis.
“Colleagues in NSW and Victoria were asked to step-up into paid positions as ‘almost interns’, and this made the pandemic very real for all of us,” she says.
However, both Flinders’ commitment to ensuring our medical and nursing students were able to fulfil their final year requirements—including clinical placements—and the comparatively mild COVID outbreak in South Australia have meant these final year cohorts have been able to continue steadily towards their goal.
Chula did have to give up exciting plans to undertake electives in the UK during the European summer, but still considers it to have been a rewarding year.
“The College of Medicine [and Public Health] has done a great job helping us finish this year, given the circumstances; that has been a godsend to all of us. And I still got to do some really interesting rotations before they shut the borders. I’ve had the privilege of delivering babies, witnessing open heart surgery, and working with Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.”
Another learning highlight was the six weeks she spent in the Flinders Medical Centre (FMC) intensive care unit at the beginning of the pandemic. While patients who tested positive for COVID and required hospitalisation were sent to Royal Adelaide Hospital, FMC still ran simulations and practice sessions to prepare for the scenario of a bigger outbreak.
“We got to see first-hand what it might be like if COVID really took off in South Australia. I found it very comforting and reassuring, because people were basically demonstrating their training. I knew that if worst came to worst, we would all just do what we were here for.”
Looking forward to 2021 and beyond, Chula has accepted an internship at FMC and plans to build her career in obstetrics and gynaecology. Her partner Graham has now fully recovered from his cardiac events, thriving on his bicycle in the Adelaide Hills.
Chula credits her scholarship for playing a significant part in where she is today.
“While $750 a year for four years may not seem like a huge amount of money, it really helps alleviate the financial pressure, and it’s very, very welcome.
“I’d gone from working fulltime and earning good money to not working and earning no money, so I was incredibly grateful for the fact that every year I got a sum of money I could use to pay the rent, put petrol in the car, and pay for a parking permit. It sounds very mundane, but these are real, necessary, daily things.”
Both the financial and psychological benefits of the experience have inspired her to do the same for others.
“Most of my medical school friends will be first generation doctors and we all see ourselves giving back in the future, and especially to education. Studying medicine is expensive, and kids from the country and Indigenous kids can’t always afford this. Giving to scholarships is so important to help someone on their journey, to shine their light.”
Also important to Chula was having “a lot of really wonderful, intelligent and brave female doctors as role models”—including Dr Subbiah, the family GP, who was extremely supportive of her application to medical school, as well as Dr Liz Beare, Associate Professor Liz Thompson, Associate Professor Merrole Cole-Sinclair, Associate Professor Christina Brown and Dr Leesa Walker, to name a few.
“I really hope I can follow in their footsteps. I honestly feel like I stand on the shoulders of giants. This incredible group of women has helped me get where I am, and if I am half the doctor each of them is, I will be pretty happy.
“Sometimes modesty can be the enemy for your dreams. You can still be humble, but if you don’t allow yourself to be proud of your dreams, it diminishes you. Ten years ago, I thought it was too late to pursue what I really aspired to be. Now look where I am.”
Let’s all thrive together! You can help other students like Chula achieve their dreams by giving to student scholarships. Donate here.