There’s something very special about country doctors; they rarely work in the places they were born and raised and often bring with them a wealth of knowledge and life experience.
Alex Sleeman is one country GP who had a big life before he became a small town GP.
Alex was once part of an elite group of Australian Navy Clearance divers trained in the disposal of explosives. From large bombs to compact IEDs (improvised explosive devices), these divers are the Navy’s equivalent to the SAS.
Alex began diving as a teenager and loved the underwater world so much he started looking at how he could do it as a career. The Navy offered the most exciting options so he joined up straight from school and started the extensive training that involved much more than specialised diving skills. He learnt how to fast-rope down from a hovering helicopter, how to detonate all manner of bombs and mastered the use of countless weapons.
During his 12 years with the Navy, Alex was sent around the globe; the US including Hawaii and Guam, Timor, Africa, Malaysia, Brunei and New Zealand are just some of the places he’s seen. He’s also seen things he’d prefer to forget.
“Yes, I’ve seen death and destruction but I’ve also met incredible people and done amazing things,” Alex says.
But as a seeker of challenges and with the constant absence from loved ones, Alex eventually made the decision to hang up his dive gear and pack away his uniform.
“In my eyes, I’d reached the pinnacle of my career. I could’ve moved into a strategic role but I prefer to be out there doing the job rather than watching on from a desk. I’d obviously done intensive first aid training with the Navy and I’d also completed a science degree with honours in chemistry and found it all very interesting. I’d also met an inspirational and charismatic doctor during one of my final missions and that really cemented the idea to become a doctor.”
When it came to jumping ship and switching careers, Alex did it with his usual no fanfare attitude saying that if he failed the first year of medicine he’d either go back to the Navy or try something else.
But he didn’t fail and after four years of study he became a fully fledged medical practitioner. Not content with that, Alex then did a further three more years of study to become a GP, plus a year long Diploma in Obstetrics and Gynecology. He’s also undertaken further training in the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer.
As a man who seeks out challenges it wasn’t long before Alex moved from a large city-based GP clinic to a small country practice four and a half hours drive south of Perth.
“A country doctor is very different from one in the city; you can’t easily refer a patient to a specialist like you would in the city as sometimes that specialist only visits your region once a month or so. Doctors in regional and rural clinics have to work very collaboratively and, in our clinic, we all have a speciality field so we can call on each other when needed.
“You quickly become part of the community when you work in a small town. You get to know your patients better and form great relationships. You also have to work things out for yourself so it’s more challenging for your brain and there’s greater scope in what you do.
“I’ve been in the ambulance racing to a hospital an hour away with a critical patient suffering internal bleeding. But there are other quieter events that are just as important, like removing a melanoma from a young person knowing you’ve potentially just saved their life. Delivering babies is pretty big too; ushering a noisy new life into the world is always a privilege.”
Alex admits that working as a country GP is a long way from “blowing up bombs in a foreign country” but adds that the work is just as important and the rewards are just as thrilling.