Surfing Doctors - Interview with Dr Phil Chapman

Dr Phil Chapman is an Emergency Specialist on Australia’s West Coast and has been the Head Doctor of G-Land Jungle Surf Camp in East Java since the mid-90s.

We discussed surfing, burnout in acute care docs and starting your own passion-project.

For the uninitiated, G-land is one of the most perfect left-hand waves in the world but despite its perfection, it’s also brutally dangerous - it has insanely heavy waves breaking onto reef as sharp as broken glass, so injuries are common.

It all started for Phil when he got a call one day from some of the locals he’d surfed with at G-Land who informed him they’d recently had a surfer sustain a serious C-spine injury and couldn’t be evacuated by helicopter until the following day. That’s when they asked him if he would like to attend the surf camp for free in future, providing he set up a basic infirmary they could use.

Over the years, this casual win-win arrangement became more formal and other surfer-doctors got involved. Now they permanently have senior doctors based at the camp, in exchange for fun and free surf.

The most common injuries are lacerations on the sharp reef but Phil has dealt with near-drownings and once an open-book pelvic fracture (a testament to how heavy the waves at G-land can get).

It’s not just surf injuries they manage now though, G-land is based in a seriously poor part of the world and locals have limited access to healthcare. So now the infirmary also caters to locals with various ailments and tropical diseases, and each doctor who attends typically covers a few shifts in the clinic when they’re not shredding those perfect barreling waves.

BURNOUT IS A VERY REAL ENTITY FOR THOSE WORKING IN ACUTE CARE ENVIRONMENTS

Dr Phil Chapman says he’s been close to suffering burnout on more than one occasion in his career - “burnout is a very real entity for people working in Acute Care environments - you get the feeling that you just want to retire or change careers”. For him, the best way to overcome the feelings of burnout and work-related stress is to get in the water. Surfing, although often high-adrenaline, is also an incredibly relaxing sport. Phil says having a few weeks off from work to unwind by doing something active like surfing, or attending the Surfing Doctor conference allows him to go back to work with fresh energy and passion for his job. He also reiterates the benefit of doing benevolent work “it gives you a sense of reward when you’re able to give back using some of the skills you’ve learned”.

Dr Phil’s advice for other docs considering planning their own passion projects:

“Find some like-minded people that you can bounce ideas off and encourage each other. It takes some serious planning and it’s always useful to have someone good with social media and IT skills”.
He also reinforces the importance of starting with a specific goal in mind - “plus, this helps keep you sane when you’re working those busy night shifts”.

GETTING INVOLVED

Surfing Doctors are now starting to open their doors to new blood and are happy for doctors with a passion for surfing to inquire about getting involved. They run annual conferences and often need new doctors to run the infirmary. They also take medical students on-board for electives. To learn more and get in contact with them, go to SurfingDoctors or find them on Facebook.