Journalist Peter Greste knows a lot more about the world and himself after being jailed in Egypt. He will share his experiences with WA rural doctors next month.

When Australian journalist Peter Greste flew to Cairo for a three-week stint with his Al Jazeera news team, he was forced to embrace the unexpected. In late-December 2013 Peter, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were arrested and charged with “damaging national security” andall were sentence to imprisonment. On February 1, 2015, after a retrial, Peter was released and deported to Cyprus.

He believes there are some similarities in Embracing the Unexpected as a foreign correspondent and practicing medicine in a rural setting (without the 400 days behind bars), which he will explore when headdresses Rural Health West’s annual conference on April 8 and 9.

“Certainly what happened to us in Egypt was utterly unexpected. There were more than a few people who thought that was a little naïve, but we really had no reason to think that we would find ourselves charged with terrorism. But embracing the unexpected has been on my calling-card for a while now,” Peter told Medical Forum.

Self-sufficiency required

“I’ve spent the past 25 years of my life working at the edge of my comfort zone in places such as Latin America, Africa and the Middle East where getting things done can be pretty challenging. That’s why I have an affinity with rural doctors because, just like foreign correspondents, they often have to figure things out on their own without any support from professional colleagues.”

“And that can be difficult when you’re confronting serious problems on a daily basis and there’s no one else to turn to. There are occasions where you just have to improvise as you go along.”

While Peter certainly didn’t quite embrace his stint in an Egyptian prison, there were many who felt he exhibited a great deal of grace under fire.

Holding your nerve

“Well, I don’t know how much ‘grace’ there was but we certainly felt under ‘fire’. One of the things that I did learn was the importance of trying to project a sense of dignity throughout the entire episode. It really helped me maintain my bearings and portray, hopefully, an impression of confidence and professional authority.”

“It’s important to have a sense of poise and equilibrium because other people caught up in the same crisis may need to see that.”

“There are some positives when you’re continually being placed in these situations.You learn to think creatively and develop a sense of confidence – real or hastily constructed – that enables you go out and do what needs to be done.It’s the same for rural doctors, they have to deal with a medical problem and there’s no real choice. They just have to deal with it in the best way possible.”

“You do need a degree of self-reliance otherwise you won’t survive.”

Don’t underestimate yourself“I know a lot of people ask themselves how they think they’d have coped in a similar situation to our experience in Egypt. Most of us would say that we’d have trouble coping with four days in prison, let alone 400. But most of us are far more resilient than we give ourselves credit for and have the capacity to cope with a crisis in ways we could never imagine. And, thankfully, most of us are never fully tested.”

“But certainly, you can’t go through an experience like ours without being changed in some way. I’ve got a few dings and knocks in the fender but I came out of it a far stronger person.”

“I’ve certainly got a much greater awareness of my own capacity.”

Find a network and use it

The importance of close support mechanisms cannot be underestimated, says Peter.

“I’m very lucky to have a wonderful family. They were central to the whole campaign to get me out of prison and I probably wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for them. There seemed to be a sense that as people watched the entire process unfold that they were able to connect with my predicament through my parents.”

“There was a lot of respect for the way my family conducted themselves.”

“One of the important things that came out of all this for me is a much stronger sense of fatalism. One of the biggest mistakes we make in the West is an unflinching belief in our own agency. We tend to think that we can be whatever we want to be, and that’s a fallacy.”

“A lot of stuff that happens is just down to dumb luck, both good and bad.”

“Sometimes you can just find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time and it doesn’t turn out so well. It doesn’t mean you’ve stuffed things up and it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. I guess that’s just a round-about way of saying I was both lucky and unlucky.”

“We’re all far stronger than we realise. We all need to keep reminding ourselves of that.”

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