Intrepid doctor shares her travelling experiences

Date published
21 Sep 2016

Canadian born doctor Vivian Skovsbo has worked in many countries around the world. Recruited by NZLocums as a GP in New Zealand, we asked her about her career choice, experiences working overseas and here, and why she’s chosen to come back and work in New Zealand on more than one occasion. 

On Tour: Vivian Skovsbo and her partner Mark Larson

Why did you choose medicine as a career?

“I've always been scientifically-minded. The human body is an amazing and beautiful machine. In university, I studied human physiology, so going into medicine made sense. I wanted a career path where I would feel helpful to others. And of course, in medicine, you are always learning and growing. so you're never bored.”

Would you describe yourself as a fiercely independent person/in what way?

“Yes, I would say I am independent. Even as a child, I didn't like it when others told me what to do. That quality can either make me stubborn, or determined. Over the years, making my own decisions and following through on plans has given me a lot of confidence as well. I think independence and confidence go together.”

What drives you to go to other countries instead of settling down, buying a house and raising a family?

“Well, I have done both. I did remote area locums in Canada and worked oversees for many years, then I settled into a job and bought a small place of my own. I think it's possible to find a balance between the two, depending on where you are in your personal life, and your career. Curiosity is what drives me to discover new places. I've seen some beautiful and remote parts of the world, and made some lifelong friends through my travels. Also, I like the challenge of trying something new, because it pushes me both personally, and work-wise. I believe I have become a better doctor, and a better person, through this journey.”

What is it about other countries that have grabbed your attention, medicine or cultural?

“I had a cousin in Denmark who was an anthropological pathologist, and he researched Greenlandic mummies. Thanks to him, I was able to go to Greenland as a medical student in 1996, and I instantly fell in love with the Arctic, and have returned to work in the Canadian north many times. The Inuit people are close to their family and to their land, a rare thing to see today. I've also worked in Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria with Doctors Without Borders. Despite constant insecurity and daily hardship, the people I met there were so resilient and hard-working, that it filled my heart with joy and sadness at the same time.”

What were some of the more challenging aspects of working in these countries?

“The Arctic and central Africa are remote and isolated places. You have to be creative with finding solutions, since you probably don't have the tools you are used to from home. Sometimes, you have to learn to give hope, even if you can't give cure.”

How long did you stay in NZ?

“My first time working in New Zealand was in 2011-2012, and I stayed for almost four months. My second trip was this year, 2016, and I stayed for just over three months.”

Where did you work in NZ?

“In the North Island, I worked in Paeroa and Dannevirke. In the South Island, I worked in Balclutha and Westport.”

What was working in NZ as a GP like compared to your home country or other countries you’ve visited?
“Compared to Canada, it was much the same, since I am used to working in a socialized healthcare system. In contrast, however, nurses in New Zealand are more involved in direct patient care, which I feel enhances patients' experience, and gives me more time to spend with complex cases. Like in many other places where I've worked, there is a real sense of collegiality between all members of the healthcare team, and I have seen this consistently everywhere in New Zealand.”

What are your general impressions of the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders?

“New Zealanders are stoic, and only come in when they really need to see the doctor. I saw more work-related injuries and chronic conditions because so many New Zealanders work in farming or other kinds of labour-based jobs. I was impressed with how long individuals stay in their home, even as they age. The New Zealand healthcare system is really working hard to keep seniors independent and out of long-term care facilities.”

What were some of the more challenging aspects of working in NZ?

“Sometimes people show up in clinic when they're really very ill. They are not complainers and sometimes wait quite a while before seeking care. Fortunately, the transfer system to referral hospitals, and access to consultants, is easy. Because New Zealand is so rural, sometimes the closest hospital is a distance away, but helicopter transfers happen quickly and consultants are very helpful, even over the phone.”

What places did you visit in New Zealand?

“I have seen most of the South Island and still have a few places to discover in the north. I have kayaked the Abel Tasman, hiked along the lush west coast, taken the train through the Southern Alps, trekked the Routebrurn Track, and seen Milford Sound in all its water-filled glory from a dry boat deck. I've cycled through Central Otago, and visited the Catlin's. I've explored Christchurch, Dunedin and Nelson. I've spent many weekends in the Hawke’s Bay area, soaked in sulphurous geothermal springs around Rotorua and Lake Taupo, and explored the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula. New Zealand is full of amazing places to explore.”

What was your favourite place?

“Hard to say. All the places I visited were special yet different. I especially like the rugged beauty of the South Island and the contrast of the mountains and the sea.”

What aspect of life did you most enjoy about New Zealand, and how was it different for your usual life?

“I especially love New Zealanders. People ask me all the time why I keep going back, and I think it is because of the people, not just the natural beauty. New Zealanders are down to earth, humorous, and hard-working. I also feel that the Maori culture is special and something you feel in everyday life. In North America, aboriginal populations are more segregated, but in New Zealand, there is a Maori presence almost everywhere you go.”

What souvenir from NZ are you taking home for yourself?

“I have fond memories of sharing Christmas dinner with newfound friends in Paeroa, long drives over endless hills filled with sheep, delicious cheese (because NZ dairy is the best), and lots of laughter and storytelling both from my colleagues and my patients.”

What advice would you give to anybody coming to live and work in New Zealand?

“Living and working in New Zealand is a special experience. I've never known anyone to regret making the decision. Be open to learning about the people, not just the healthcare system. Give yourself enough time to explore the natural beauty that is everywhere around you. And allow the New Zealand experience to change you forever.”