Dr Rolf Gomes on following your passion
He remortgaged his home to start Heart of Australia saving 400 lives so far
Doctor Stories
August 17, 2021

Dr Rolf Gomes is the Queensland nominee for Australian of the year 2021, he also holds a Bachelor of Engineering from the University of Melbourne, and he is the Founding Father of Heart of Australia.

Heart of Australia delivers monthly specialist medical investigation and treatment clinics to regional, rural, and remote area communities across Queensland. With over 10,000 patients seen and 400 lives saved, it’s no wonder this man is up for such a prestigious award.

Medworld Founder Dr Sam Hazledine caught up with Dr Gomes on his Better Together podcast to find out: what drives him, what prompted this innovation, and how he takes care of himself while he is doing so much. 

The below are some highlights from the show, Dr Gomes has such a fascinating and inspiring story, we suggest you take the time to listen to the whole thing as well.

Early Life:

Dr Rolf Gomes' parents migrated from Calcutta when he was nine years old. He grew up in Melbourne's East St Kilda in 1982 when it was still a “relatively rough neighbourhood.”

He remembers loving his new life in Australia “I was nine years old. I loved television, traffic lights, and BMX Bikes!”

Dr Gomes is acutely aware that his parents left everything in Calcutta to come to a country that offered more opportunity for their children “I remember my father saying he stepped off the plane with 4 suitcases, 4 children, and $200.” 

His gratitude for his life in Australia is unwavering, he praises it as “such a fantastic country,” and the sacrifices his parents made are not lost on him.  

“I remember catching a rickshaw to school back in Calcutta when I was eight years old and seeing beggars and kids sitting on planks of wood and carpet riddled with polio. You suddenly realise what a different world you are in and how lucky you are to be here!” 

His childhood experiences in a third-world country contributed to him having such gratitude for his lifestyle, country, and his ability to do what he was doing. These early experiences inspired Gomes to make a life around giving back.

Starting Heart of Australia:

“One great benefit of not having much is that you don’t have much to lose - “I  didn’t have a reputation to lose or any money to lose” Gomes explained when talking about the moment he decided to create the Heart of Australia “Heart Truck.”  

“I was getting to the end of my cardiology training and I was looking to give back to a country that had given me everything.” The Heart Bus launched in 2014, to get to this point he had campaigned the Federal Government, secured some like-minded sponsors, and remortgaged his family home. 

“Studying engineering previously is instilled in your being. Engineers, they like to make things happen” Gomes explained.  The idea had come to him whilst working as a junior doctor in the regional areas. He noticed firsthand the lack of services and wondered how he could bring specialists with their equipment out here. 

“For cardiology, it’s not just a stethoscope; it’s a treadmill and stuff you can’t fit into a suitcase and take on a plane - so why not the back of a truck?” The engineer in him had asked. 

“In engineering, you look at the problem and try to map out the steps and what options you have in front of you to achieve that.” 

The truck started off servicing five towns with 2 specialists, now they are up to 33 towns and 23 specialists, and they are about to launch a 5th truck complete with a CT Scanner

Mixing Creativity and Data: 

Medicine is built on data and studies, and then trials, and more studies, but Gomes suggests it was mixing medicine with an engineering background that got the truck onto the road. “Stepping out of the traditional mindset into a more innovative mindset can be difficult” Gomes explained.

In 2011, he saw a paper published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. It said if you lived outside of major cities you were 44% more likely to die of heart disease. “I thought in a first-world country we can probably do a bit better than that.” 

“There have been studies, and blue papers, and white papers, and pillars, and pathway documents talking about making health care more accessible. I was quite happy for people to keep doing the research but I just wanted to get going and make sure people weren’t dying in the meantime.” 

Medicine is a very traditional profession, Gomes explained, and you can understand why as you are dealing with human lives, so you want to make sure you are not pushing the boundaries too far, but Gomes suggests when you take the logistical aspects of a trade like engineering and mix it with medicine - that is when innovation happens.

“People I think have an over-reliance on data. Data has a role and it’s very useful don’t get me wrong! But you hear sayings that sound very profound like “without the data all you have is an opinion” and the truth is data has no relevance on imagination “ 

Data tells you the facts, which is very important, especially in medicine, but it takes imagination to dream up new ways of doing things, to innovate, and to chase aspirational goals.

“Having a good imagination and creativity has very little to do with data. It’s something that I don't think people appreciate. Data can tell you where you’ve been and provide some guidance of where to go, but having the imagination and the courage to follow it is also very beneficial.”

How finding your ‘why’ can help you lead a burnout-free career:

Dr Rolf Gomes works tirelessly; he started the Heart Truck in 2014 and still works in it today. He tucks his children into bed at night and then goes off to the hospital for a 9-hour shift, and yet, he has never experienced burnout. Gomes attributes this to staying clear on his “why.” 

“The interest in what I was doing was the sustaining factor. You believe in the benefits, and that causes the lines between work and fun to blur. I feel very fortunate to be living in this world, and I enjoy doing my job so much that it’s not a chore to do it.” 

Gomes explains that he has never felt at risk of burnout, his parents brought him to this country with nothing and instilled in him; gratitude for the country, his job, and an incredible work ethic.

Dr Hazledine explains that he has done a lot of research into burnout in doctors, and interviewed many. The one thing that all the doctors who were not burnt out and were thriving had in common was “purpose.

The one thing the burnt-out doctors had in common was that they had become disconnected from their purpose, causing exhaustion, increased mental distance, and/or feelings of cynicism. 

To avoid burnout, don’t just go through the motions, take the time to reflect on the impact that you’ve had. “My purpose protected me the most, focusing on my why. I go out there on the weekend I see 20 patients and I come back and I think they are so lucky they turned up for an appointment on the truck - it’s very rewarding” Gomes explained. 

“Around Christmas time I get sentimental. I often find myself closing my eyes and just thinking about all the faces and conversations I've met on the truck and how very lucky they are to be with their families that time of year.”

Some tips from Dr Rolf Gomes on combating burnout include:

1. Try and recapture that feeling you had when you were waiting to be called in for your medical school interview. Where was your mind? Where was your heart? You were so excited! Save people’s lives, ease suffering - this will be great.

2. Try to find social significance and community-oriented work - this creates a healthy existence

3. Accept sometimes you are too busy, and it’s OK to say no. 

4. When you spend time with your family make sure that you have quality time with them and you are present. You have to make a little bit of a sacrifice when you have a family.

Dr Sam Hazledine to Dr Rolf Gomes, “if you could go back to your 18 yr old self what are the 3 most important things that you have learned”

1. Always maintain honesty and integrity.

2. Do not dismiss your ideas as easily, nurture them, give your ideas a sanctuary. Don’t wait till you’re older to do things. Take action to make it happen. 

3. Listen to yourself and what you know as a person and what you enjoy doing. Don’t be pressured into something you are not innately accustomed to.

Dr Sam Hazledine to Dr Rolf Gomes, “How would you like to be remembered?” 

“I’d like to be remembered as someone who had the courage to try their best. Someone who tried to follow a moral compass and was mindful that it was pointing in the right direction. A man who stuck to his word, and maintained his integrity. Always maintain your integrity, in all your dealings that is the currency you are trading, and once you have lost that you have pretty much lost everything.”  

Watch the Youtube video here:

Article by
Dr Rolf Gomes

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