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The diplomatic doctor

Almost a decade ago country GP Dr Mark Hampson decided to pack in his Byron Bay practice, join the foreign service and see the world. In the following nine years he has, among many other experiences, witnessed first-hand the difficult early years of the one of the world’s newest countries, Timor Leste; trekked for days through the jungles of northern Laos helping search for a lost Australian tourist; and been on hand for Myanmar’s hesitant steps toward democracy and re-engagement with the international community.

11 Mar 2013

By Australian Medicine editor Adrian Rollins

Almost a decade ago country GP Dr Mark Hampson decided to pack in his Byron Bay practice, join the foreign service and see the world.

In the following nine years he has, among many other experiences, witnessed first-hand the difficult early years of the one of the world’s newest countries, Timor Leste; trekked for days through the jungles of northern Laos helping search for a lost Australian tourist; and been on hand for Myanmar’s hesitant steps toward democracy and re-engagement with the international community.

But it almost didn’t happen.

In 2003 Dr Hampson chanced upon an advertisement from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade about work as a doctor attached to the Australian embassy in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar.

At the time, he was feeling a “bit burnt out” after 15 busy years working as a GP and in obstetrics in and around Byron Bay.

“It was probably the most challenging and professionally rewarding time, but my partner and I were looking for a change,” he said.

Dr Hampson underwent an exhaustive assessment process involving mountains of paperwork and several interviews, at the end of which he was offered a position as doctor attached to the Australian embassy in Jakarta.

He knocked back the offer, but soon got a call asking if he’d be interested in a similar position at the embassy in Dili, the capital of Timor Leste (East Timor).

He and his partner arrived in Dili in January 2004 and so began what Dr Hampson said was a very challenging but extremely rewarding period.

Working in a big bureaucracy with very strict rules about how things were done took a lot of getting used to, as did the very basic level of services and infrastructure the nascent country had to offer.

“Every Monday morning meeting, and you had to think quickly on your feet and make the best use of what facilities you had available,” he said.

After two-and-a-half years in Dili, Dr Hampson was posted to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, where he found himself caring not only for embassy staff and their families, but also Australian tourists and other travellers.

His consular work often involved travelling to different parts of the country, including 11 days spent tramping through a Laotian forest as part of a massive search for a lost Australian tourist.

“When we eventually found him, he was in pretty bad shape. He had to spend five months in intensive care,” Dr Hampson said, but added that it was the sort of experience that made him love his job.

“That is why the work is so interesting,” he said. “It is not just sitting at the desk all day. It really is a privilege to be able to work and live in another country.”

After six years in Vientiane, Dr Hampson transferred to Yangon, where he runs the Australian Embassy Medical Clinic.

It is a fascinating time to be in Myanmar, which is desperately poor after decades of economic and political isolation.

The country is undergoing a difficult political transformation toward democracy and greater openness to the outside world, while at the same time managing a legacy of severe under-investment and negligible development.

Yangon itself is a very green city, studded with big parks, lakes and tree-lined boulevards.

The legacy of colonial Burma is visible everywhere.

Massive Victorian-era public buildings – including The Strand Hotel, the former Customs House and massive warehouses – line the Yangon River waterfront, while sprawling colonial-era mansions – many of them in advanced decay - sit in massive gardens.

Yangon is a sprawling city, much of it low-lying and prone to flooding, but the geography means that the massive Shwedagon Paya (pagoda) is visible from many parts of town.

The gold-encrusted dome, which sits on a hilltop, soars 100 metres above its base.

Archaeologists believe the first stupa was erected on the site between the sixth and tenth century AD, and the tradition of gilding the dome began in the 15th century when the-then queen donated her weight in gold, which was beaten into gold leaf and applied to the structure. A succession of rulers continued the practice, including one who extravagantly donated four times the weight of he and his wife.

Preserving its ancient and colonial-era heritage while accommodating much-needed economic development will be a great challenge for the Myanmar Government, and Dr Hampson will be able to see first-hand how this intriguing country progresses.

AR

 


Published: 11 Mar 2013