'Why I love working in the tropics': ENT surgeon's love affair with FNQ

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Associate Professor Bernard Whitfield has practiced medicine for more than four decades across three separate continents, but working in Far North Queensland always holds surprises for him.

‘A few weeks ago, I was called down to Cairns Hospital’s Emergency Department,’ he said.

‘There was a patient who had been brought down from Cape York, who was being treated with high dosage antibiotics, whose condition was actually getting worse.

‘It was getting more and more difficult for her to swallow, eat and drink.

‘When she opened their mouth, you could see that she had absolutely classical diphtheria.’

Diphtheria is an extremely rare bacterial infection in Australia and is vaccine preventable.

Dr Whitfield, who is one of the few Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialists servicing the Far North, said he never expected to be presented with a case of the disease in Cairns, where there is an average of 1 case diagnosed each year, mostly imported from neighbouring countries.

He prescribed the woman an antitoxin, which needed to be delivered from Brisbane.

The woman is now on the road to recovery.

‘As an ENT, you encounter lots of weird and wonderful things - particularly in this part of the world,’ he said.

Dr Whitfield, who is based in Logan in South-East Queensland, has been servicing the Cairns and Hinterland, Torres and Cape hospitals and health services regions, on a regular rotation during the past 14 years.

The UK and South African-trained surgeon has played a key role in programs such as the Deadly Ear program, which rolled out to rural and remote parts of the Far North in the mid-2000s.

The award-winning program leads Queensland Health’s response to reducing the rates and impacts of middle ear disease and conductive hearing loss for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children across Queensland.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children currently have one of the highest rates of otitis media - or middle ear disease - in the world.

‘I did one the of the first trips for Deadly Ears up to Bamaga in December 2006,’ Dr Whitfield said.

‘Since then, I’ve seen all kinds of amazing places. I’ve been to every single Torres Strait island.

‘You get to like little planes, helicopters, boats - and in your spare time, the fishing!’

Bernard Whitfield with a small catch off Weipa.Dr Bernard Whitfield in the corridors of Cairns Hospital.
Bernard Whitfield with a small catch off Weipa and in the corridors of Cairns Hospital.

Dr Whitfield, who became an ENT specialist in 1998 after gaining a General Surgical Fellowship first from Edinburgh in Scotland, said the field always kept him on his toes.

He also travels to our 11 Pacific Island neighbours coordinating the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons ENT Outreach Program.

‘ENT, as a field of medicine, is always expanding – never shrinking,’ he said.

‘It can be one of the most challenging fields, but also one of the most rewarding.

‘There is a tangent or niche for nearly every personality type.

‘There’s a very friendly reception, wherever you go, and very collegiate response from other medical professionals.

‘We also get to play with some of the best toys, like endoscopic equipment and high-end operating microscopes.’

Read more about medical recruitment in the Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service.