Heroic trainee ophthalmologist Dr Mitchell Lee is finally about to head home after nearly three months operating as a near ‘one-man-band’ eye service in outback New South Wales. Dr Lee made the decision to strand himself in the outback to provide a solo service as a junior doctor. A true measure of his bravery and dedication.
“I really couldn’t just abandon people in a crisis, particularly when we didn’t know how long it would last for. It was a no-brainer for me. If I could make it happen then I was going to make it happen,” – Dr Mitchell Lee, Ophthalmology Registrar
What Dr Lee ‘made happen’ was something truly remarkable. Currently an ophthalmologist in training at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney, part of his training requires him to undertake a regular three weeks on, one week off training rotation in Broken Hill as part of the Outback Eye Service. These rotations are conducted under supervision of a consultant ophthalmologist who usually flies in from Sydney, Melbourne or Adelaide. In mid-March Dr Lee was due to begin another three-week stint in Broken Hill. But that three-week stint soon turned into three months…
“There was a real threat to the survival of the eye health service because everything was starting to go crazy. Suddenly Rex airlines stopped their flights in and out of Broken Hill and then South Australia closed their borders. Specialist ophthalmologists couldn’t get into Broken Hill and, if they did manage to get in, the question was how were they going to get out?” Dr Lee said.
The Outback Eye Service is the only provider of specialist eye health services in the area. The next closest ophthalmic services are located at Mildura or Adelaide, three to six hours drive away.
“Dr Lee’s actions were ones of pure selflessness and bravery. He was very worried that if he returned to Sydney then no one would be able to return to Broken Hill to provide eye services of any kind. In some cases, such as macular degeneration, if patients don’t receive their regular treatments (in this case injections into the eye) then they will start to lose vision and it’s irreversible,” – Dr Ashish Agar, Vice President, Australian Society of Ophthalmologists (ASO), based at the Prince of Wales Hospital and Director of the Ophthalmology Service at Broken Hill Hospital).
Under the remote supervision of specialist ophthalmologists from Sydney’s Prince of Wales Hospital, Dr Lee was charged with maintaining the eye services to the region. These included vital sight-saving eye injections and laser procedures for glaucoma and diabetes, well as providing emergency trauma care and advice which not only saved sight, but also lives as well.
One such case occurred a few weeks ago a young woman in her thirties was admitted to the Broken Hill hospital after suffering a head trauma. CT scans didn’t show any fractures or any other obvious serious injuries, but she was still suffering some unusual disturbances to her vision. Dr Lee examined her and found evidence of a stroke in the retina at the back of the eye. Dr Lee thus ordered additional vascular imaging, which soon revealed dissections of the vertebral artery and carotid artery – placing her at a very high risk for stroke in the period shortly following the accident. She was immediately transferred to Adelaide and stroke-prevention treatment was administered.
“If Dr Lee hadn’t been there then it’s doubtful that this condition would have been diagnosed,” says Dr Agar. “Being able to detect that she had suffered a small mini stroke from the fall meant that he was able to prevent her suffering a much larger stroke which could have left her severally functionally impaired or even dead.”
But Dr Lee is reluctant to take all the praise. “The big thing that allowed me to continue was the amazing support that I received from the consultants who usually rotate through the service. Everyone let me know ‘if you have trouble we are only a phone call away’. I felt very supported by the entire Outback Eye Service, not to mention the support of the community, nurses and clinical staff in the area, as well as the community at large.”
Dr Lee was also blessed with family support. “My partner is studying at the moment and obviously doing it online because of Covid-19, so she packed up herself and our cat and drove the 1300 km to come and stay with me and the entire community really looked out for us with everything from gifts of produce from their gardens, to offers of help and places to stay. It was great. I’m really going to miss it.”
“We are grateful for the commitment and care shown to patients by Dr Lee and all our other doctors who continue to support us during this time of crisis.” – Dr André Nel, Director Medical Services, Far West LHD
However, all good things must come to an end and Dr Lee finishes his stint at Broken Hill on Friday. “As much as I’ve really loved it I am very much looking forward to being home and sleeping in my own bed,” he said. It is indeed a well-earned rest.
Dr Mitchell Lee is available for interview
For further information, please contact Sally Symonds,
Manager, Media & Communications ASO – 0417 727 625