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10 October 2022

Reaching for balance with a passion outside medicine

Reaching for balance with a passion outside medicine

Obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Tiarna Ernst has a high-flying perspective on finding life balance, having trained in tandem as both a professional athlete and doctor.

The 2011 James Cook University graduate, who grew up in Cape York, was drafted into the inaugural AFLW competition in 2016, winning a premiership with the Western Bulldogs in 2018 and continuing to play elite sport throughout her medical specialty training.

“I knew for me, running out on to the football field was almost therapeutic and that I could switch off from the pressures associated with being a junior doctor,” Dr Ernst says.

“I could just be a player and it didn't matter what I did outside of playing footy. I think that can be transferred into any area of interest; it doesn't need to be sport.”

Dr Ernst will deliver the keynote closing address at the AMA Queensland Junior Doctor Conference, which is supported by NQRTH.  She will talk about how to find purpose and passion outside of medicine.

“My message for junior doctors to find something, whatever it is, outside of medicine that gives you balance in your life,” Dr Ernst says.

“I think you need to find a passion. It doesn't need to be sport. It doesn't need to be physical. It could be analytical, it could be academic, but it needs to be something different outside of medicine. It needs to be something where you can switch off, you can forget that you're a doctor or a medical student, and just pour your energy into that thing.

“I've got some colleagues who are very interested in music, others are interested in volunteering groups, climate change, things like that.”


Cape York to Cairns

Dr Ernst was born on Thursday Island and grew up in Bamaga, where her parents were primary school teachers. “We had an outdoors lifestyle, immersed in the culture of Torres Strait Islanders. We were really welcomed into the community at Bamaga and that's all I really knew growing up.”

The family moved to Julatten, north of Cairns, when Tiarna was 11. “I was getting closer to secondary school, and I had three younger brothers who had also come along by that stage, so Mum and Dad decided to move closer to their family.”

After graduating from Mossman State High School, she launched into the six-year JCU Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery degree in Townsville. A member of one of the first JCU Medicine cohorts given the opportunity to complete their final two years of medical school in Cairns, she moved back closer to home, and discovered AFL.

“I stumbled across it when I was at university in Cairns. Coming out of the gym after a boxing class, I ran into some girls who played footy. They recruited me for that team and, just being naturally athletic, I sort of picked the game up very quickly and continued to play when I was a junior doctor.”

“After I'd finished my internship and residency at Ipswich, I decided that I'd go on a bit of a life adventure to Victoria and hopefully work as a junior doctor but play footy at the same time. The growth of women's football meant that there were lots more opportunities available and I was drafted in 2017 to the Western Bulldogs.

“The plan was to be down in Victoria for 12 months and I ended up being there for five years. That was through opportunities with football but also because I was accepted on to the RANZCOG obstetrics and gynaecology pathway. I had the challenge of balancing footy with my obstetrics and gynaecology training for six years.”

Tiarna Ernst

Equity in sport and medicine

A trailblazer for women in a male-dominated sport, Dr Ernst’s message for junior doctors is also one of equity.

“Being in that inaugural season as drafted athletes to the AFL clubs, a collective, we experienced significant barriers and challenges to be able to even get that opportunity in the first place,” she says.

“Equality for female in sport at the time was something I was really passionate about, given that we weren't initially treated as equal. Then trying to support other female athletes to be able to get opportunities just like male athletes was something that I became quite invested in.

“Seeing some of the challenges that not only AFLW players have to have to endure, but all female athletes in many different sports, I think that does carry over into medicine as well. Making sure women have leadership opportunities to pursue their career interests is something that I'm very passionate about supporting – making sure junior female doctors know that they're actually deserving and are capable of achieving whatever they can if they're interested in it.”

JCU and the far north

Dr Ernst says her JCU medical degree was ‘such an incredible, well-rounded experience that really meant that when I stepped out into being an intern, and then a junior doctor, I really felt that I was capable and I was prepared’.

“The on-the-job learning that JCU provided through lots of rural and remote clinical placements really meant that you were prepared to walk into the industry and be able to provide a service to patients with confidence. I just felt like I was ready.

“My interest in doing obstetrics and gynaecology came from experiences I had on my medical placement in the obstetrics and gynaecology department at Cairns. That was, at the time, overseen by Dr Caroline De Costa. She was a big inspiration for me. Then during my RANZCOG training, having the opportunity to do outreach to Aurukun, Cooktown and Weipa was amazing, to be able to provide services to the communities in an area of medicine that I was really interested in.”

 She is excited to see JCU’s launch of the foundational medicine years 1-3 in her home region of Cairns in 2023.

“I had to move away from home for four years down to Townsville before I returned for fifth and sixth year … having an opportunity for that cohort of students to be able to start those studies in Cairns is fantastic,” she says.

“The wealth of experiences that they'll get through the Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service is only going to better provide for the for the community. The outreach opportunities that you get out of Cairns were probably some of my fondest memories when I was working in Cairns.”

Balance as a parent and doctor

Mum to a four-month-old daughter, Charlie, Dr Ernst has returned to work part-time as a senior staff specialist at Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital and in private practice with a Brisbane fertility clinic.  

She believes following her passion outside of work has helped her as a doctor.

“I obviously took that to the extreme by performing as an elite athlete. To do that was really hard, physically, emotionally, psychologically, but I think it actually made me a better doctor, and I think that being a doctor also made me a better athlete,” she says.

“They had complementary values or qualities that made me thrive in both environments. The drive to be the best, the focus, communication, teamwork, meant I was a good doctor in that sense that I could work quickly in emergency circumstances, I worked well in a team, I was a good communicator with patients and with my colleagues.

“Equally, the discipline, motivation and focus that come with being a doctor meant I was able to then put that into my into my sport and try and be the best athlete that I could be.”

Register for AMA Queensland’s Junior Doctor Conference on the Gold Coast on 29-30 October. Join clinical, life and survival skills sessions, and network with exhibitors, keynote speakers, and panel experts.

NQRTH connects medical students, intern and junior doctors with a network of opportunities and resources designed to create a supportive and clear path to specialist (including general practice) training, and beyond, in our regions. Our network works together to strengthen medical specialist training with the view to build a health workforce prepared to meet the health needs of our regional and rural communities in Cairns, Central West, Mackay, North West, Torres and Cape, and Townsville. NQRTH is facilitated by James Cook University, who partner with hospital and health services and training providers to create a connected career pathway beginning at the medical undergraduate level right through to fellowship.

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NQRTH is an initiative of the Australian Government's Integrated Rural Training Pipeline (IRTP) and is facilitated by James Cook University in partnership with public and private hospitals, Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council (QAIHC), health services, Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs) and GP clinics.

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