Working for the Australian Army is a great fit for Dr Ruth Highman. The former international ocean paddler identifies closely with the collaborative teamwork inherent in military culture and a patient cohort with a strong commitment to performing at an elite level. And Ruth’s base at Leeuwin Barracks is only a few paddle-strokes from her beloved Indian Ocean.
“A large component of my work with the Army is injury management and rehabilitation and it’s given me more insight into the significance of just what an injury can mean for military personnel.
My competitive ocean paddling dovetails nicely with the military’s focus on physical training and maintaining a high level of fitness.”
“Army personnel have similar personality traits to those in medicine. As doctors, we often exhibit perfectionist and highly driven behaviour and, if it’s not managed well, it can be a liability.”
After graduating from UWA in 2002, Ruth enrolled in the Rural GP Pathway program with an anaesthetics specialty.
“After I did some more training in Emergency medicine and did stints in Broome and Albany plus 18 months in Geraldton which, for me, was GP utopia. The workload had a wonderful mix, including anaesthetics.”
“Competitive paddling drew me back to Perth because it was important to be training with an elite squad but I became a little disillusioned practising as a metropolitan GP. There was a strong contrast between the patients I saw in rural general practice and the many ‘worried well’ I saw in a metropolitan setting.”
“One of the strong threads running through rural medicine is a sense of great need.”
Rising to the challenges
Not surprisingly, Ruth relishes a challenge, whether it’s looking after patients or paddling long distances through rough seas.
“The usual race distance for ocean paddling is 25-30km and our sole intention is to paddle downwind. We love the sou’wester every afternoon and most of the Indian Ocean paddlers have the Wind Guru forecast set as our Homepage.
There’s nothing better than skating along on the swells with the wind at your back.”
“We organise a car shuttle where we leave one car at the finish and go back to the upwind starting line. The stronger the gusts the better! We’re getting excited when it’s up around 30 knots.”
Ruth retired from international racing at the completion of the 2012 World Series at the top of the women’s rankings, but points out that travelling with a paddle is not as glamorous as it sounds.
Fired to achieve
“I’ve always pushed myself to achieve that extra 1%, to see what I’m capable of. And it’s not always about winning races or beating another person. In two of the most satisfying races of my career I was third across the line.”
“Some people have a romanticised view of international competition but it’s quite demanding. It’s a competitive mindset, you’re there to do perform and, in the end, I just wanted to enjoy my overseas holidays.”
For a couple of years there was a standing joke about the wind or, more specifically, a lack of it. when Ruth turned up to compete.
“I was known as ‘Death to Wind’ because every international race I entered, we hardly ever got a downwind event. And without the wind and the waves, 25km is a long, hard, flat-water paddle!”
A transition from an intense training schedule is always problematic and Ruth, in her own words, is ‘treading water as to what’s next.’
“I love working in a team environment and the interactive, collaborative approach of the Army suits me well. I’m still doing rural locums, recently in Broome and Geraldton, and I continue working a day a fortnight in the ED at Armadale in an effort to maintain my ED skills.”
“I’m interested in sports medicine so I may well do a Masters in Sports Medicine. But I also recently did some medical student tutoring which I enjoyed immensely so that is another area I’m keen to pursue further.”