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Finding My Nonconformist Medicine Mojo

6 April 2023

Join us as we discover the inspiring journey of Ffyon Davies, who forged an unconventional path in medicine, freeing herself from the typical mundane career constraints and living her passions. Whether you’re just starting out or maybe you’ve lost your ‘medicine mojo’, her story is sure to inform and potentially reignite your spark. 

Let’s delve into her story and embark on a journey of inspiration and self-discovery.

The first glimmer of nonconformity

I’m an emergency medicine registrar. As you can probably tell from my name, I’m from Wales, and I followed a fairly conventional training path until a few years ago: Med School at Cardiff University, my first Foundation Year in Wrexham and my second in Rhyl…

Then I went to the World Extreme Medicine Conference in 2020. For me, it was a game-changer. Until then, I had an abstract idea about combining my two big passions in life – the outdoors and medicine. At that conference, I discovered a whole community of people doing awesome stuff and realised that other people really do this. I could do it too.

From here on in, I’m taking a bit of a swerve, carving out my own training pathway, DIY-style, rather than going into formal training like most doctors. I want to get the same experiences as them but on my terms.

The main advantage, as I see it, is being able to live and work where I choose rather than having to move around all the time. If you apply for a national training programme you don’t get any say over where you get put. I decided that wasn’t for me.

I recently finished a job in North Wales, a mix of A&E, intensive care and some HEMS work with Wales air ambulance, and I’ve just moved to Hereford to start a full-time job in A&E. That’s where I want to base myself for the foreseeable future. When I’m not away on expeditions or courses, that is!

Fanning the flames of a portfolio career

I’ve always been outdoorsy and my family moved around a lot with my dad in the Navy. I guess it gave me a sense of adventure and a strong sense of self having to keep making new friends in new places.

Ultimately, I want to carve out a medical career where I can pick and choose my special interests and organise my job, contract and timetable to suit me. I’m working towards being an A&E consultant with a specialist interest in expedition medicine and pre-hospital emergency medicine – they go well together because expedition medicine is by definition pre-hospital.

I’ve found A&E to be a demanding specialty and find it hard to imagine myself doing this full-time for the next 30 years or so. I see expedition and pre-hospital medicine as a way of making my career sustainable, taking regular breaks from A&E but still using those skills. Call it a reset button.

Lots of the skills you learn in an expedition environment are equally useful in a hospital setting. One of my biggest struggles is getting everybody else to see that! I’ve got to convince people at work that they should let me go and climb mountains because it’s beneficial for the department when I return.

Ignited by an interest in expedition medicine

One of the skills you bring back is problem-solving because you’re working with a limited kit on an expedition – you may have to make one piece of kit do three different jobs. Also, you learn how to deal with adversity and tough environments when you’re cold and wet and trying to get an IV line in on the side of a mountain! It’s putting your skills to the ultimate test.

Leadership is another big one. Being an expedition doctor requires some psychological know-how: motivating your team, being a role model and keeping an eye out for your group. They’re skills that are definitely transferable back to A&E. You need to be able to motivate people on a long night shift and find a way to get the best out of them when they’re feeling rundown. You need to be able to judge when it’s time to stop and either send somebody back down a mountain or send them home because they’re on the verge of exhaustion.

These skills aren’t necessarily taught through medical training and, actually, they’re very hard to teach. In my experience, a lot of expedition doctors are very confident because they know that they can operate in these very difficult environments. I think it gives you a greater appreciation and understanding of all that you have available to you as a doctor in a normal clinical setting.

Going back to a warm, well-stocked A&E department where you have other people you can call on, even if it’s the middle of a pandemic and you’ve got a queue of ambulances backed up outside and patients on trolleys in the corridors, doesn’t seem so bad when you know what it’s like to be up against it in an expedition environment.

The spark that satisfies

I find expedition medicine satisfying because, generally, you’re helping a motivated group of people to achieve their goals. You help get somebody to the top of Kilimanjaro, that’s instant gratification.

After that first World Extreme Medicine Conference in 2020, I was desperate to get an expedition job but nobody was doing anything because of Covid. I attended WEM’s Keswick Wilderness and Expedition Medicine course as we were starting to come out of the pandemic. I’d just got my first expedition job on board a ship and wanted to prepare for it. The course was unlike anything else I’ve ever been on – totally inspiring, and I thought, yeah, this is what I want to do. I’ve done several expeditions since then in the Yukon and up Kilimanjaro.

My best moment on expedition so far was with the mountain rescue team I worked with. A mountain biker had badly dislocated his ankle and I was able to manipulate it at the scene and put it back in place before the patient was sent to hospital. My worst moment? Definitely summit night on Kilimanjaro when I felt awful. Everyone in the group had some level of altitude sickness because it was a rapid ascent – not to be recommended. It was a wake-up call having to look after everyone else while feeling terrible myself.

Being the expedition medic on board a tall ship sailing from Germany to Tenerife with a crew of adolescents was interesting too, particularly when the captain asked me to do a risk assessment for us to see La Palma’s erupting volcano. How to keep people safe when sparks are literally flying!

Blazing a trail

I’m just setting out on my path with World Extreme Medicine. I was asked to speak at last year’s conference and successfully applied for Faculty. I met Eoin Walker when I went to shadow the Plas y Brenin course, and he subsequently asked me to get involved with the World Extreme Medicine podcasts. I was ecstatic. I felt like a superstar! My first chat just came out, and I’m looking forward to recording a few of my own interviews with some great guests I met at The Big Sick conference in Zermatt.

There are certain expectations of you as a medical student and as a junior doctor. Stepping off the treadmill and doing things your way can feel like a risk. But I think an unconventional career path can pay off if you’re committed and willing to put in the effort.

Other people may not get it. What I take from World Extreme Medicine is that there’s a whole community of people that do get it!

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