A long-standing Whangārei GP who reinvented herself as a Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) Surgeon Lieutenant is now on the front line for COVID-19 procedures for Navy ships going to the Pacific.
Lieutenant Kim Rapson, 52, had been in general practice for 20 years and was looking for a new challenge.
“There was an underlying desire to join the Navy since I was young. I had always noted the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) advertisements for a doctor position.
“You know how you have those moments, where you progress through life ready for a challenge, then it presents itself. It was a huge step to join the Navy, but everything came together at the right time.”
She joined the NZDF in 2019, initially as a civilian doctor, working for six months at Devonport Naval Base’s medical centre.
“I could have stayed as a civilian, but I wanted to be in the military, to justify making the giant leap of leaving the practice and my home, and deployments really appealed to me.”
It meant undertaking 22 weeks of officer training at Devonport Naval Base at the start of 2020, extended to 26 weeks as New Zealand enacted a Level 4 COVID-19 lockdown.
“Overall, the physical requirement was not as bad as I thought it would be. I found the basic military disciplines hard at first, like marching everywhere, addressing authority correctly and remembering always to wear my hat.
“Giving orders was also strangely challenging. As a GP, you don’t tell people what to do, you encourage them to make their own best choices.”
She said it was a surreal time during the lockdown.
“You felt powerless during a population health emergency. We were confined to close quarters with little privacy and it was difficult to continue the planned training programme.”
Her husband and three teenage children were big supporters of her decision.
“It was a big adjustment for the family and it forced them to learn many domestic skills. But it was okay, I think they still love me.”
Graduating as Midshipmen, doctors are then automatically promoted three ranks to Surgeon Lieutenant, with a scarlet stripe between their gold bands to indicate their medical status.
In November, Lieutenant Rapson deployed with HMNZS Canterbury as part of a medical team during a four-week infrastructure delivery of water tanks and solar panels to the Tokelau atolls.
“There were two medics and two medical assistants on that trip. There was a lot of teaching and learning. We did COVID-19 screening of the personnel each morning at 0530 prior to the start of the day’s unloading. We attended to personnel who came to sickbay and ran the hospital section on HMNZS Canterbury as an isolation ward.”
Her advice to those considering a career in the Navy is be prepared for a challenging adjustment to military culture.
Keep fit, be adaptable and be prepared to move out of one’s comfort zone, she said.
“The entire team making up the Deployable Health Organisation and Force Health Organisation are a great group of people as we work around the many challenges. I feel really fortunate to have been given this opportunity.”
Surgeon Lieutenant Rapson is posted to the Regional Headquarters Force Health Organisation (Northern), based at Devonport Naval Base.