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Never too late: 'I had to throw out everything I knew and start again'

As told to Kate Guest
·5-min read

Name: Kate Woods
Age: 58
Bank teller turned senior clinical pharmacist for the East Kimberley

When I finished my HSC in Yarrawonga in 1979 there was no question of going to uni. My mum had arranged for me to do nursing, mainly because she’d had to abandon her own training after getting tuberculosis.

I lasted six months. I wasn’t a nurse, but I discovered I loved the hospital environment, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time.

I got a job in a bank and got married soon after. Later I transferred to Wagga Wagga, ultimately winding up in the “reconstruction unit”. This is where delinquent business and rural loans went to ensure the bank recovered as much of their money as possible. It was exhausting walking an ethical tightrope every day. It just didn’t align with my values.

Around this time we helped move my niece into college at the University of Melbourne. I remember feeling almost sick with envy for the opportunities that lay ahead of her. As we toured these amazing science labs it planted a seed in my head: maybe it wasn’t out of the question for me to do something crazy such as go myself?

I went from someone with a vague itch to scratch to someone with half a plan

By now I had two sons who were eight and four, and I’d occasionally have to take them to our community pharmacy. It was run by a husband and wife, Tony and Jeannine, and I remember thinking how wonderful it must be to work in a respected profession like that where you could help people every day.

As a gentle introduction to study I enrolled in a science course at Tafe. This is when my life changed. The tutor, Geoff Withers, encouraged me at every opportunity, building up my confidence and chiding me for self-doubts. I went from someone with a vague itch to scratch to someone with half a plan.

I went part-time while completing year 12 chemistry and foundation maths, then left the bank after 20 years and enrolled in a bachelor of medical science degree. I loved reading scientific research and fancied making a discovery that would change the world. When I arrived at uni I felt like I’d entered some enchanted garden of knowledge, like I’d burst out of my skin. I was the typical eye-rollingly annoying mature-aged student who asked endless questions.

Of course I was acutely aware of the looks from students young enough to be my kids, but I honestly didn’t care – I was there and it felt such a privilege.

I was so self-conscious I took it to heart and ended up whacking him in the guts and storming off

I soon worked out I was hopeless at pipetting and got bored with bench work in the lab. I liked the idea of scientific discoveries but not the doing. I missed human interaction. Pharmacy seemed a better choice, because it combined science with patient interaction.

I doubted myself a lot. I remember in one early lab class – I think we were sketching a cell under a microscope – I couldn’t get something right and the teacher was kind of making fun of me. It was just cheerful banter but I was so self-conscious I took it to heart and ended up whacking him in the guts and storming off. I cried all the way to the car park, thinking I’d blown everything. If it was today he’d probably have me on assault charges. But I took a big swallow of humility and turned up at the next class, and we had a laugh about it.

The other thing that nearly brought me undone was calculus. To this day I have no idea about integrals, derivatives and rate of change. But I discovered the learning centre, and they made a plan for me that would ultimately lead to a credit – my lowest mark, but Ps make degrees, as they say.

Many folks can do amazing things with no external support, but that wasn’t me. My husband, Roger, was my rock. At stressful times, usually before exams, he’d ask me what I needed. If it was a quiet house for the weekend he’d pack up the kids and take them on a spontaneous “camping adventure”. When I finally gained my full registration it was Roge that opened the letter and read it to me. We collapsed into each other’s arms for the longest time.

It’s funny how life ends up. I did my graduate year at Wagga Base hospital, where Jeannine was then working. She became my boss, my advocate, my mentor, and is still a dear friend. She wouldn’t give me peace until I believed in myself.

I spent a few years as a regional pharmacist travelling between 16 hospitals, then in 2015 we went to the Kimberley on holiday and fell in love with it. I started looking at job boards, and a little over 12 months later we had moved to Kununurra.

We now live in a small, inclusive community that shares a deep love for the incredible nature around us. We spend our weekends camping and fishing, or hiking into remote places that few get to see.

I work predominately in Indigenous health, a long-time passion of mine. I joke that I had to throw out everything I knew and start again. It’s not just a case of explaining about a patient’s new medicines. It’s very hard to counsel someone about keeping their insulin refrigerated when they might not have a fridge. They might not have a home. There might be bigger problems on the scene. There is always a bigger picture to consider.

There’s not a day when I’m not challenged by the job. I might be trying to get a life-saving medicine in from Broome, 1,000km away, or communicating with someone whose language I don’t speak, when there’s no interpreter for their particular language. But the people of the Kimberley – both patients and healthcare team – make it such a rich and rewarding experience.

To anyone who’s fence-sitting on a career change, I’d say just do it. It’s so easy not to get out of that comfort zone, but just prepare well, take a deep breath and go for it.

• Read more in the Never too late series