Profile: Dom Carroll, First In the Family

As a teenager in the 1990s, Dom Carroll excelled in science class, taking out the biology prize three years running. But as the 10th child in a family of 11 kids living in Central Queensland, going to university did not figure in how he imagined, or was encouraged to imagine, his future.

At 33, an age when many people are contemplating starting a family, Dom decided to enrol in an undergraduate degree. Two, in fact: a double degree in Biomedical Science and Biotechnology. At the end of 2020, after eight years of continuous fulltime education, working out of hours and on weekends to put himself through, he will graduate from the Melbourne Doctor of Medicine (MD).

“It’s been a meandering road,” Dom says. “I don’t think I ever felt I wasn’t capable of succeeding academically, it was more that I was exhausted. Poverty was difficult to become accustomed to after being in the workforce, but I don’t regret any of it.”

Dom started his working life with Queensland Rail. This took him to coal train weigh-bridges in Coppabella, mountaintop microwave radio relay stations near Mt Larcom, and optical fibre pits everywhere along Central Queensland’s vast rail network.  After he completed his signalling, telemetry and telecommunications electronics apprenticeship, he traded in Rockhampton for Brisbane, and his high-vis vest (last seen in an op shop donation bin) for civilian attire, eventually landing in the Melbourne biomedical precinct.

Working for the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research as an in-house engineer, he got friendly with the scientists. Then the Global Financial Crisis led to the closure of the Institute’s RMH campus. Dom decided not to search for another job, but instead see where his newly rekindled interested in biology might take him.

An unexpectedly “pretty stunning” GAMSAT result threw a spanner into his plans for a teaching career. “It redirected my thinking, I really had to rationalise what I was doing: the aptitude for medicine and this love of education. I came to the realisation that a really a good doctor should be a good teacher as well. You still get the interaction with people all day every day and you do get to educate people about their health and wellbeing.”

There is a well-worn path to medical degrees from private schools. Medical schools have been working to eliminate bias in selection (interviews are now a critical ingredient to identify applicants with aptitude rather than just marks), but that doesn’t go to the heart of why working-class students are less likely to apply for medicine.

Lack of family support is a huge barrier. Annual Medical Deans Australia and New Zealand figures show that overwhelmingly, students who make it through a medical degree do so with family as their main source of support. The new Melbourne MD is being redesigned for launch in 2022 to attract students from a broader range of backgrounds, in recognition of the fact that the profession needs to reflect the diversity of the communities it serves.

“Encouraging socioeconomic diversity among the student body is not just a noble cause, it’s going to pay real dividends in the delivery of healthcare,” Dom says. “This is an advantage I’ve had going through medical school – the social determinants of health aren’t just an abstraction for me”.

Dom says younger students from privileged backgrounds can be judgemental about the life challenges that lead to people persisting with habits that harm their health. He recalls a conversation with a woman hospitalised with pneumonia, the result of smoking -related COPD.  “We had a conversation about her grandchild, and it just emerged that there was her motivation for trying to quit again, she could have a better quality of life with them, keep up a little better, if she managed to give it a good go.

“She came to that decision herself – there wasn’t any recrimination or judgement from me, just a bit of understanding about her as a person. Any kind of paternalism or judgement wouldn’t have worked.

“Even as a student, if you can offer understanding and compassion, it changes the way a patient has perceived their whole time in hospital. You can make a real difference and that’s been the rewarding thing.”

Although juggling various jobs has been exhausting, the interactions with nurses, practice managers and medical records have led Dom to appreciate the ingredients that make for a functioning health system. “I have an understanding that it doesn’t just take a surgeon to perform an operation – it takes a dozen people to make that happen.”

Dom is now determined to encourage people from a disadvantaged background or a trade to consider medicine. “If you’ve got a little whisper in your mind that says go and be a doctor, go and do it.”

– Elisabeth Lopez