A final-year student at Griffith University in Queensland, Caitlin Rutherford-Heard has overcome numerous challenges in her journey to becoming a doctor.
Caitlin was born with a rare congenital deformity known as ‘funnel chest’ where a person’s chest is noticeably pushed inward, as well as a vascular tumour that was surgically removed when she was 11 months of age.
Having undergone multiple hospitalisations each year of her life, including three surgeries during her medical studies, Caitlin’s determination and resilience have been nothing short of inspirational.
“I was born with a lot of things wrong with me, and what all the doctors said to mum was that ‘she can have a normal life, you just have to encourage her’,” she said.
“I want to be that doctor who can be there for women like my mum, and encourage them that they don’t have to be ashamed that their baby isn’t picture perfect, because it can still be anything it wants to be.”
Caitlin as a baby
Her passion for medicine was further ignited at the age of 15 when she found joy in educating young women about their reproductive health.
“At that age, I was helping a lot of girls in school to access contraception and period products, and I loved educating young women on their options and taking control of their reproductive healthcare,” she said.
“Around the same time, I also happened to stumble upon a show called ‘Offspring’ and I saw how Dr Nina Proudman was helping women journey through their pregnancy and their women’s issues, and I thought: ‘That is what I want to do when I grow up’.”
It was these personal experiences and encounters which led her to the decision to pursue a career in medicine.
“I have always wanted to help people and make a positive impact on their lives,” Caitlin said.
“Becoming a doctor has been my dream for as long as I can remember.”
Despite her own health struggles, Caitlin remains committed to becoming a doctor, and is determined to overcome any obstacle in her path.
She credits the support of her friends, family, and medical school for helping her overcome the challenges she has faced.
“Trying to navigate being a ‘sick person’ and being a medical student is never easy, as you feel guilty for not studying and then the medical professional within you is telling you that you need to rest,” she said.
“Leaning on the people around me such as friends, family, and my medical school has been vital to helping me overcome these challenges.
“I’ve also set realistic expectations of myself as opposed to trying to ‘keep up’ with people around me who maybe don’t have the challenges that I do.
“Having a strong support system has been crucial in my journey.”
One of the most memorable moments in her medical career so far was supporting a mother through her childbirth.
“Seeing the joy and relief on her face when she held her baby for the first time reaffirmed my love for this profession,” Caitlin recalled.
“It’s moments like these that make all the challenges worthwhile.”
Caitlin’s immediate vision for her future as a health professional is focused on rural health and serving her community in Beaudesert, where she hopes to split her time between local general practice and the hospital.
“I’m attracted to a career in rural generalist obstetrics which has a general practice portion to that,” she said.
“I realised throughout my clinical years that I love continuity with my patients, and I really enjoy seeing them through all phases of their life.
“The only way I will really be able to do that, especially in a public healthcare space, is through general practice.
“I can fill my need to work in women’s health, whilst also helping people who remind me of my stubborn Dad – those who are reluctant to see their GP.
“Through general practice, I can also heal my sick inner child that could never find a regular GP because they were always too scared to take on my care due to my super rare genetic condition.
“I would also like to be able to offer locum services once a fortnight to other rural towns to help relieve the workforce out there.”
Caitlin’s dedication to rural health has been further strengthened through her participation in the AMSA/GPSN Rural Generalists Mentoring Program.
“It has been really helpful being able to just talk to someone about the rural training pathway and what my options are in the future,” she said.
For Caitlin, the allure of rural health lies in the people – the staff, the community, and the sense of love and acceptance that surrounds her.
“There is no other field in medicine where you can walk into a space and feel so loved, wanted, and validated all in one,” she said.
“No one is there to hurt you or make you feel like less of a human, they are only wanting to uplift you, largely because they so desperately want you to stay and help.
“It’s a place where I feel valued and appreciated for the work I do.”
Her ultimate goal is to travel to developing countries, educating women about reproductive healthcare, and helping their fight for equal rights in accessing reproductive healthcare.
With her passion, determination, and unwavering commitment, Caitlin is on a remarkable journey to making a lasting impact in the field of medicine.