Melanie Underwood wanted to become a doctor who “would save the world” – but life has, in her words, thrown a succession of curveballs.
Now Director of Emergency Medicine Training at Brisbane’s Greenslopes Private Hospital, she is also a solo mother raising two young daughters following the death of her partner two years ago.
Her life story has become part of a book by 20 female doctors from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States and Canada, which entered Amazon’s best-selling charts in a number of categories on pre-sales ahead of its 18 July release.
Each doctor contributed a chapter to ‘Medicine Women’, an anthology of stories and letters about their healthcare experiences.
Dr Underwood wrote a deeply personal account of her trip to Swaziland at the age of 30, working in third-world conditions at a hospital where 90 percent of the patients had HIV/AIDS and needles were disposed of in a cardboard box.
“When I heard about it, I knew I had a story to tell from my time in Africa,” said Dr Underwood, who was invited to contribute through a post on a Facebook support page for women doctors who are also mothers.
It also meant revealing her vulnerabilities – which she continues to do on a daily basis in the emergency department.
“I think my vulnerability is what makes me popular at Greenslopes Private Hospital with my patients,” Dr Underwood said.
“I think they actually really like my honesty. A lot of cancer patients come through our department and I tell them I have been along this journey as well as a carer, and they really embrace that.”
Dr Underwood’s partner Colin was also an emergency physician, but sadly succumbed to cancer following his treatment at Greenslopes.
Now raising their daughters, aged four and six, she is passing on her experiences to the junior doctors she trains at the hospital.
“It’s important to admit life doesn’t always work out the way that you want it to,” Dr Underwood said.
“We tend to have a very set mindset early on about where we want to go and what we want to do, but life does throw curveballs and you have to adjust your thinking.
“Sometimes it is good to put yourself outside your comfort zone. I feel like I have led many lives – it has taken many twists and turns, none of them were expected.
“I started out with rose-coloured glasses wanting to be a doctor who would save the world, and clearly that is not what happened. I did my best.”
And Dr Underwood is doing her best to instil that attitude in the young people she trains – stay open-minded and you may end up taking a completely unexpected journey in life.
“You need ambition and drive and some sense of where you want to go, but don’t close your mind to other opportunities which may lead you to a pathway to other things,” she said.