A Pandemic Fellowship

Blair York, STONZ Treasurer shares his experiences completing his fellowship in Melbourne during the pandemic.

After a covid disrupted year in 2020 with lockdowns and delayed exams surely 2021 would be a new year and a nice way to put covid behind us, right?

With excitement for the journey ahead our family of 4 headed to Melbourne for my fellowship. Within 3 days of arrival there was an outbreak in Auckland and because that was our exit port we were required to isolate and get a test – all negative – but a sign of things to come!

The first 4 months were fantastic with almost no restrictions and in retrospect we didn’t do as much of the exploring of Victoria as we should have. Clinically, work was exceptionally busy as Melbourne came out of the extended lock down of 2020 and the backlog of surgery waitlists meant that the afternoon operating lists regularly finished at 10 o’clock at night. Fantastic for learning but certainly made life challenging for my wife who was regularly a solo parent for many evenings.

The trans-Tasman bubble came and went with my parents being stuck with us for an extra 10 days when they risked it to come and visit. After the bubble slammed shut, we were essentially left to the whim of the order restrictions for a re-entry to NZ plan.

There was a couple of short lockdowns with minor outbreaks during the first half of the year but it was the Delta outbreak that really made life challenging. Long lockdowns, limitations on surgery. Everyone in N95 masks and entire theatre complexes shutdown with staff cases infiltrating even the much stricter hospital restrictions than we have ever instituted in NZ (temperature checks and statutory declarations that you are symptom free and haven’t been to a location of interest every time you enter a hospital). Fortunately, from a surgical perspective we were able to continue with many complex painful conditions needing surgery, and as I was doing a hand and wrist surgery fellowship, most of our surgery was able to go ahead though some of the more routine operations were cancelled.

Home life was a challenge – schools were essentially shut from July until to the end of October. So, walks around the block and the odd trip to a socially distanced playground (ever tried that with kids!) were the only respite from our small home. Without having a saint for a partner this would have made the fellowship almost impossible to continue with. 

As cases continued to escalate and Fortress New Zealand started its lottery system we decided to enter and see what we could get. Luck was not on our side in the first lottery but we got exceptionally lucky in our second entry 1 week later. So, we ended up leaving Melbourne 2 months earlier than expected just to ensure we could get home for my prearranged SMO job. Two weeks in MIQ with the kids – it wasn’t as bad as it sounds! We were lucky enough to have 2-rooms as part of MIQ which meant I was able to dial in and participate in the second round of MECA negotiations via zoom.

Overall – a pandemic fellowship was still great from a clinical perspective. We were so busy in the first half of the year catching up on covid waitlists I saw more than a normal fellow does in a ‘normal’ 12 months. I absolutely got what I wanted to out of it. The restrictions and hoped for travel with the family wasn’t quite what we expected. Cancelled holidays and lots of time indoors a bit disappointing but it was still an experience that we will remember. Melbourne isn’t going anywhere so we will go back and do some of the things we missed out on at some stage.

If you’re planning a fellowship, I have a few pieces of advice for you. Though hopefully with an increasingly vaccinated population these will be less relevant! (Until Pi or Theta arrive…)

Be flexible – who knows what’s coming next in this pandemic

Use times of low restrictions as much as you can -> don’t presume this will continue for the entire time the next variant is just around the corner.

Make sure you maximise the clinical parts of the fellowship as much as you can

Have fun, adapt and make the most of the time – you will soon be back as an SMO so enjoy it!


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