A doctor 20 years in the making

Toby Sen Gupta hugging his Dad, Professor Tarun Sen Gupta at the MBBS 2020 Oath Ceremony

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Written by

Tianna Graham


College of Medicine and Dentistry

Publish Date

8 December 2020

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In the beginning

Dr Toby Sen Gupta is part of the new cohort of graduate doctors to enter the next phase of medical training. Born and raised in Townsville, Toby is looking forward to his Intern year at the Townsville University Hospital in 2021. With a passion for rural medicine and all that North Queensland has to offer, he has set his sights on a career in Rural Generalism. Toby has reflected on his time at JCU and his early connection to the University, which began unknowingly as a toddler.

I was three when the JCU Medicine School opened. I was literally at the opening ceremony on 5 December 2000 with my Dad, Professor Tarun Sen Gupta, who was part of the original group of teaching staff. It's always been there growing up and reflecting on it, being a doctor is something I wanted to do from a young age. It was a very straightforward journey for me.

I chose to study at JCU because I knew about the focus on rural and remote health. I enjoy living in North Queensland and couldn’t see myself head down south for study, waiting 40mins in traffic to get to university every day. Also, my Dad was a great role model for a career in rural generalism, which really appealed to me.

Toby's preschool prediction
Toby asleep at a Club RHINO meeting
Toby's preschool prediction to become a Med student (Left), Toby asleep at a JCU Club RHINO meeting he attended with his Dad (right)

Experiencing rural medicine

The clinical years of the medicine degree would have to be a highlight of my time at JCU. After three years of mainly textbook-based study, the transition into clinical placement was really, really important to me.

Being in the hospital setting, interacting with real patients, and then becoming an active part of a medical team, even as a student, was so beneficial in learning the communication and teamwork skills required to work effectively.

In second year, I had the opportunity to go to Thursday Island for a four-week rural placement. That was just one of those unparalleled experiences you could have for a rural placement. The Torres Strait is such an iconic and beautiful place. In particular, the hospital is right on the water with an operating theatre that boasts ocean views and a helipad that's sitting on top of water. I fondly remember one particular morning when one of the senior doctors walked through the ED at 7.50am in a wetsuit and spear gun over shoulder before getting changed for the morning handover, as he’d just gone fishing off the hospital prior to starting his shift.

I was provided the opportunity to help do the GP outreach clinics on the outer islands with some of the doctors from the hospital, which involved travelling to the islands via helicopter for the day. It just exposed me to a completely different, underappreciated part of Australia in the Torres Strait and that health and medicine is so important to every region in Australia. We've got such a vast and beautiful country. It was really nice to experience that and I don't think I would have gone up there otherwise.

This year I was fortunate to do a six-month extended rural placement at the Ayr Hospital. This experience stands out for me in particular as nine of the doctors who ran the hospital were JCU Medicine graduates and worked with the Rural Generalist Pathway. It was such a lovely experience, as someone wanting to follow a similar pathway, to be able to work with senior doctors in that field who were so welcome, genuine and willing to teach.

I was in Ayr from January through to late May, during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown. It was quite scary at the time. Being a small rural hospital, it wasn't initially set up to handle a potential large-scale pandemic and there's a high proportion of vulnerable population in the Burdekin, particularly the older generation of farmers. I was lucky that my placement wasn’t disrupted, but there was definitely a quite a big fear that if some of the people in the hospital fell ill with COVID they'd potentially have to shut down. But as it turned out, we only had one case that came from Brisbane, via Townsville, that isolated and we had no other issues.

I felt like those six months did so much for me in terms of my confidence in becoming an intern next year. It cemented for me that I wanted to apply for the Rural Generalist Pathway, which I did, and I'll start next year.

Toby and Taurn at a gala ball
Toby in a helicopter on placement in the Torres Strait
Tarun and Toby at a Club RHINO gala ball (Left), Toby in a helicopter travelling to GP clinic on a remote Torres Strait Island (right)

Running to eradicate poverty

Run to Better Days was another standout of my time at JCU. The annual charity relay was founded by JCU students Dan Charles, Brenton Mayer and Laura Koefler in 2012, to raise awareness about global poverty and promote the idea of effective altruism.

The event itself is an annual relay that sees a group of 15-20 predominantly JCU Medicine students run a stretch of 1,200km down the coast of Queensland over 14 days (in a typical non-COVID year).

In my first year, I participated in the relay and then from my second year I took on the organising of it along with Matthias Wust, Simon Johnston and Julian Pecora. Ever since then, I've been involved in the run in some capacity and have spent many, many hours plotting over our various running routes in Google Maps or trying to juggle some of the logistical challenges thrown by such a large event.

I think at our last tally, the Run to Better Days event had managed to raise over $135,000 for various cost-effective charities over the last eight years and run something close to about 7,000km. We estimate we’ve probably talked to about 40,000 people and various communities. It's a privilege to be a part of it and I just feel so humbled to be able to give back a little bit to the vision that Dan, Lauren and Brenton created way back in 2012.

Toby (front runner) and the Run to Better Days 2018 team

Parting advice for students

Something I've really thought about this year is that all the doctors I've regarded as good doctors have also been good people.

You can study a textbook all day long, but what’s really important is being a compassionate person with your interactions, and with patients particularly. I think as a student and a doctor, you need to put more of an emphasis on be able to talk to patients. It’s such a key part of the job. In the first few years of studying medicine, we really focus on learning everything from books, video and lectures. But there's a whole other set of skills you can gain from having hobbies outside of medicine.

If there is one parting piece of advice I can leave for first-year med students, it’s that while textbook learning is an important foundation, it's the interpersonal experiences that make your life and future practice as a doctor so much more engaging, rewarding and fulfilling.
Dr Toby Sen Gupta

Toby and Tarun at the oath taking ceremony
Toby with Dr Michael Wooldridge
Toby and Tarun at the JCU MBBS 2020 Oath Ceremony (left), Dr Michael Wooldridge former Health Minister who opened the JCU Med school in 2000 with Toby reminiscing about his connection to the school. (right)

Making JCU history

As we graduate from JCU Medicine in its 20th year, I feel as though we have now become part of a rich history. JCU Medicine is such a unique program.

It’s been humbling during the final weeks to talk to some of the parents of my colleagues. Some of them are doctors who were around in the 90s, when the JCU Medicine School was viewed as a fairytale that would never come true. Fast forward 20 successful years and here they are with their own children now graduating from the program. I think it’s really great to hear that feedback and particularly for someone like my Dad, who’s been involved since the beginning.

As I finish up my studies as an undergraduate student at JCU, I have realised that it would be hard to see myself doing anything else. It’s something quite special to be able to look back on the photos from the early 2000s, when the Medical School opened, and reflect upon the journey it’s taken for me from then, to now being a graduate of the Class of 2020.

Toby and his sister at the opening of the Med school
Toby with his sister near the Med school plaque
Comparison: 2000 opening of JCU Medical school vs 20 years later Toby and his sister Eliza, recreating the moment

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