In a world where conformity reigns, Erin Kilborn stands out as a beacon of boldness and resilience.
Hailing from Scotland, Erin has carved a remarkable path as a consultant in Emergency Medicine while pursuing a master’s degree in Global Public Health. Her relentless pursuit of a career that defies the norm has taken her from the jungles of Malaysian Borneo to the war-torn landscapes of Haiti.
Now, as we approach the highly anticipated World Extreme Medicine Conference, we are thrilled to announce that Erin Kilborn will be joining us as a distinguished speaker.
In this exclusive feature, we delve into Erin’s extraordinary journey, exploring her unwavering passion for humanitarian work, her tireless pursuit of knowledge, and the indomitable fire that fuels her spirit.
Join us as we uncover the remarkable story of Erin Kilborn, a true boundary-pusher in the field of extreme medicine.
“I’ve come up against resistance and challenges but it’s never cowed me because I knew this was what I wanted. At the end of the day, it’s your life, your career and your path.”
It is scary to do things a bit differently. You need to be bold. You have to be quite strong in your self-belief. You might find on your journey that it’s not the right path for you and it also takes courage to then say, actually, no, I’m going to change tack.
I grew up in Scotland from the age of about seven and I’m currently working as a consultant in Emergency Medicine in a district general hospital in Wishaw while pursuing an online Masters in Global Public Health with Queen Mary University London. I finished my junior doctor training in Scotland in 2010 and then took myself off to study tropical medicine in Belgium.
Back in the UK, I created a bespoke training programme for myself to have the flexibility to work abroad. I locumed in various departments, focussing on emergency and acute medicine because I figured they would be the most useful for my chosen career path.
I have a multicultural background; my mum’s Belgian and my dad’s from the States. I grew up speaking Flemish and when I was studying in Belgium I did night classes to consolidate my French. I’ve just started learning Spanish as well. Speaking several languages is useful for expedition and humanitarian work, especially with international organisations like Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders.
You get a lot of advice as a junior doctor, often from people who have only ever seen things done one way. And they’ll tell you that’s the way you need to do it. And it’s not true. I’ve come up against resistance and challenges but it’s never cowed me because I knew this was what I wanted. At the end of the day, it’s your life, your career and your path.
When I worked as a teaching fellow at Cross House district general in Scotland, they were very supportive of me doing different things. I did a bunch of courses. I went on the World Extreme Medicine expedition and wilderness medicine course and that led to my first expedition job with Raleigh International in the jungles of Malaysian Borneo.
“For a lot of people doing humanitarian work is a one-hit-wonder. It takes a certain mindset to go back again and again, a certain grit. I compare it to a passionate romance where you have crazy highs and intense lows.”
Coming back, I set the ball rolling with Médecins Sans Frontières. I did an intensive French course in preparation for my first mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which got cancelled shortly before I was due to leave. When MSF asked me to go to Bangladesh, it didn’t feel right, and I said no. The next day they offered me Haiti. And off I went in 2013. That was my first humanitarian mission, working in a Burns and Trauma Unit three years after the catastrophic Haitian earthquake. It was a huge challenge.
For a lot of people doing humanitarian work is a one-hit-wonder. It takes a certain mindset to go back again and again, a certain grit. I compare it to a passionate romance where you have crazy highs and intense lows. It’s that combination of just enough stress and challenge and intense satisfaction that makes you want to keep doing it.
Being part of MSF was what inspired me to be a doctor in the first place. It sounds quite cheesy and dreamy-eyed, but a lot of people come to humanitarian work from that perspective. You do get to go to interesting places and meet wonderful people but it’s difficult too: you’re away from friends and family for months at a time and it serves up a lot of challenges. On the plus side, you gain so much as an individual and as a professional from those experiences.
Some people come at it with a white imperialist attitude of thinking ‘I’m going to go and save the world’. You need a certain amount of naivety and altruism to have the craziness to go into this field but, in reality, it’s more about a sharing of knowledge, skills and resources and trying to improve systems for people in places where they don’t have the same access to these things that we have. For me, humanitarian work is about equity.
“It’s great being able to highlight an issue that someone perhaps wasn’t aware of or explain your motivation and enthusiasm for what you do. It’s also important to tell it how it is, not depict things through rose-tinted glasses.”
I get intense satisfaction from the work I do and from sharing my knowledge about what it takes to do humanitarian work and the impact it can have on you. It’s great being able to highlight an issue that someone perhaps wasn’t aware of or explain your motivation and enthusiasm for what you do. It’s also important to tell it how it is, not depict things through rose-tinted glasses.
World Extreme Medicine has been massively influential for me. I attended my first World Extreme Medicine Conference in 2012 – rubbing shoulders with people with a similar mindset. Returning in 2016, I met a nurse who was helping World Extreme Medicine organise conference speakers. I was working in the capital of the Central African Republic, an active war zone, looking after victims of sexual violence. I’d also just been on a disastrous expedition. So, I did two conference talks: one about the impact of sexual violence and one about how not to run an expedition!
Seemingly, they went down well, because I was invited back and spoke at another World Extreme Medicine conference about the complexities of managing a team providing specialist surgical and medical treatment for osteomyelitis and burns patients in Gaza during the pandemic. I’m scheduled to speak again this year. I’ve recently taught on World Extreme Medicine expedition & wilderness medicine Course in Keswick. I come at it all with a humanitarian slant.
“I’ve been really affected by some of the things I’ve seen. When you return from particularly harrowing missions, you realise there are very few people you can really talk to about what you’ve been through.”
I’ve been really affected by some of the things I’ve seen. When you return from particularly harrowing missions, you realise there are very few people you can really talk to about what you’ve been through. Friends and family may not be the right people.
I’ve made some decisions that I regret and that’s big stuff to live with but it’s part of the job and the learning process. Increasingly, there’s support to help you deal with those feelings. Younger doctors are increasingly aware of mental health and the impact of the work we do. I’d say there’s a growing awareness too among the organisations we work for. When you come back from a war zone it’s now obligatory to do a debrief.
I did a TEDx talk for Glasgow University about one sexual violence case that hit me really hard. I had some psychological therapies to help me work through things and spoke to other medics who’d had similar experiences in the field, which all helped.
You also bring back qualities that can help your team in your normal clinical setting.
I was recently on a shift where we had over 90 patients in the department. It’s a small district general hospital and we had more than 65 patients in the waiting room. That’s a lot of pressure. Problems with flow through all hospitals at the moment mean patients are waiting for hours to get out of A&E and into a bed. A lot of people faced with that would feel very stressed. I also was under pressure but, having had the experience of dealing with mass casualty incidents, I’ve learnt how to prioritise, manage the flow and spread the risk.
That skill set comes from being in an environment where you are routinely pushed out of your comfort zone – you pivot and learn to be much more flexible.
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