Doctor without borders: Dr Kat Franklin

Treating patients isn’t the only thing Dr Kat Franklin (MBBS (Hons) 2011) has to worry about when she works in some of the world’s most dangerous places.

Photo of Dr Kat Franklin

Drawn to helping others from a young age, Dr Kat Franklin works with children in very different worlds. As a medical student, the Royal Children’s Hospital paediatric trainee volunteered to observe treatment facilities in Ethiopia, Fiji and Peru.

She has since completed assignments in dangerous political hotspots – including Afghanistan (2016), South Sudan (2016) and Iraq (2017 and 2018) – with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or ‘Doctors without Borders’, and as part of an Aspen Medical/WHO trauma project.

In Afghanistan, Dr Franklin joined an MSF project at a maternity hospital in one of Kabul’s poorest suburbs. The security situation was precarious, and resources limited. Staff coped with basic tools such as portable oxygen, antibiotics and feeding tubes.

Dr Franklin led a team of eight male paediatricians and had to decide which patients they had the resources to treat and which they had to transfer elsewhere.

“In Afghanistan, the needs were so high that we could only provide critically ill children with initial treatment and stabilisation before referring them on to other facilities,” she says. “It was hard.”

Medical staff lived in lock-down near the hospital due to the threat of car bombs and kidnapping. They supported each other, drank tea on the roof and tried to have fun.

“Our house was like a little family,” Dr Franklin says. “These are some of my most amazing memories.”

The stark contrast in environments was clear to Dr Franklin after she returned to the Royal Children’s Hospital. The first child she saw was successfully treated for a condition that another child had died from in Afghanistan.

In Wau, South Sudan, the team worked in a tent hospital with little more than antibiotics and oxygen concentrators available.

On one particularly devastating day, five of the 12 children being treated didn’t make it. In such difficult circumstances, Dr Franklin says it was important to focus on the positive outcomes.

“You have to have wins and you have to remind yourself of those wins,” she says. “You have to focus on the kids that did well.”

Debriefing is an important part of each overseas assignment, and Dr Franklin also keeps a diary to help her process her work.

“It helps me to read my diaries back, to remember what’s happened and think about the different stories,” she says.

After her first Iraq trip, Dr Franklin was awarded a Sir John Monash Scholarship to study a Master of International Health and Tropical Medicine (Hons) at the University of Oxford. Oxford, with its secret passages behind library bookcases and herds of deer roaming the grounds, couldn’t have contrasted more sharply with the surroundings in Iraq.

“It was amazing. I completely love Harry Potter more than anything in the world ... it’s the closest I think I’ll get to Hogwarts.”

Dr Franklin was inspired to pursue medicine as a child by the doctors who treated her younger brother Michael, now a veterinarian. Their sister Amanda, a Fulbright Scholar who completed a Bachelor of Science (2008) and a Master of Science (2011) at the University of Melbourne, is a marine biologist.

Dr Franklin wanted to be a paediatrician but struggled with maths and chemistry and didn’t have the prerequisites for medicine.

While completing an undergraduate degree in behavioural science, she discovered the Graduate Medical School Admissions Test (GAMSAT). GAMSAT is part of the graduate medical admissions process and incorporates university grade averages and an interview. Anyone can sit the test, but a good knowledge of biological and physical sciences is required. Previous experience, knowledge and skills such as problem solving, critical thinking and writing are also considered.

After spending a summer poring over her sister’s chemistry and science books, Dr Franklin did well enough to gain admission into a Bachelor of Medicine/Bachelor of Surgery at the University of Melbourne and hasn’t looked back.

After her latest overseas mission, Dr Franklin has returned to the Royal Children’s Hospital to continue her paediatric training. Still in her early thirties, she appreciates the experience she’s already gained in “two entirely different worlds”.

Dr Franklin is keen for more overseas assignments and recommends them to others – if

the timing is right and the volunteer is suited to it. The work can be really difficult, and resources can be scarce, but she thrives on the challenge and creativity required.

“Being able to provide health care for people who otherwise can’t access it, and to see some really sick children get better … I think that’s the reason why I keep on going back,” she says.

Dr Franklin recently featured on the University’s 3010 podcast. Listen now to learn more about her international experiences.

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