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Ikigai – A reflection on DFTB23


We all go through it: a career is established but gets a bit monotonous. It provides income, and you have made your life work around the job. It ticks the boxes. It’s my job. I often wonder what being a dive instructor or a puppy breeder may be like. I manage a smile and then a sigh. Those jobs pay rubbish money, and I’m definitely overqualified now. And how could I be a dive instructor with three kids in tow?

It’s time to go to work, and I park my ponderings. I realise I am attending a conference tomorrow, Don’t Forget the Bubbles in Adelaide. This is the first time I have attended this conference face to face after Covid. I haven’t planned to catch up with anyone, but I will see a few familiar friendly faces amongst the faculty and look forward to the break from my monotonous family and work life.

Well, hello, DFTB23!

My core is rocked. My knowledge expanded. My connections are electric.

I learn a lot about paediatric medicine, but I learn more about humans. And my head and heart are full of bubbles. I am alive. I have a profound awakening of my Ikigai.

Ikigai (ee-key-guy) is a Japanese concept referring to the purpose of living. The reason for being.  The ultimate homecoming. Iki means ‘life’, and Gai means ‘worth’. Grasping the essence of YOUR life. It is the overlap of four pillars: your passion, your mission (what the world needs, your inspiration), your vocation (what you’re good at), and your profession (what you’re trained for and are paid for).

The spectacular Mary Freer chairs the conference opening. She is the founder of Compassion Revolution. Her movement exists around the concept of embedding compassion into everything we do. After paying her respects to the Traditional Owners of the land, the Kaurna people, she delivers a touching talk on her own journey with self-compassion. In front of 400 people, she shares how she fought off her demons while balancing on a tightrope. She is a true master of owning her vulnerability, yet a fighter turning it into a revolution coloured with positivity, honesty and connection.

The first day is concluded by artist Dyspora, also known as Gabriel Erjok Majer Akon. His partner introduces him to me as Erjok, an anagram of ‘Joker’. Joker is a very appropriate mask for him. Erjok was born in South Sudan. When he was two months old, his mother fled the war-torn country with him and his two siblings. They walked for three months before reaching a refugee camp, which would become his home for 8 years. He would see children die every day from preventable diseases… The cruelty of a child growing up in such circumstances was clouded to him by it being his daily reality and all he knew. The kids would kick a football made out of rubbish or make music.  Erjok decided he would be a doctor when he grew up to stop children from suffering.

His mum – ‘The Bravest’ – fled from the camp though. After a stint in Kenya, they were granted political asylum in Australia.

Erjok had reached the end of his struggles. He was out of the slumps and could finally begin a better life. Or so he thought. This was the beginning of his life stained by racism. Every day, he is called offensive names. When he succeeds, he is Australian. When he fails, he is African. He is an Austra-alien.

Now, this man is a powerhouse poet, musician and human. He replaced (or masked?) the trauma and frustration with music and treats us to some incredible work. ‘A child who is not embraced by the village, will burn it down to feel its warmth’. He reminds us that we are all part of the humani-tree. He performs in the auditorium, and the crowd loves it, despite their cheeks still being tear-stained.

The day is full of life and a little bit crazy. The breakout space is as brightly coloured as the DFTB logo. There are massage tables, a beanbag corner, a grand piano, a play area for children, and most of all, the room is filled with smiling faces. Welcome reception drinks are served by people dancing on rollerskates, and the champagne and canapes are exquisite. I connect with friends and strangers and share some of my deepest private thoughts in a very organic way. I am euphoric, and this day can surely not be topped.

I’m wrong. Over the next two days, I am blown away by high-quality talks and mind-shifting ideas.

The reality of how disadvantaged indigenous Australians are (a 10-year shorter lifespan? Really?!). The lived experience of a trans teen navigating society and healthcare, challenging the duality of gender as we know it. The stigma of functional neurological disorder which is far more organic than we realise. The division of society as a result of social media. The taboo of half the world population bleeding every month and the reality of period product poverty in Australia and beyond. Disability being treated as a deviation from the norm: aren’t they just who they are? And can they not be embraced just AS they are? And can we, as a society, not do so much more to remove barriers?

The power of connection trumps adversity. The power of connection is insane. I feel my heart swell and my Ikigai pour out. I am grateful. Then, the conference throws therapy dogs and pandas at me. No joke, an actual panda is chewing bamboo while I have a drink at the party night reception. DFTB23 celebrates its 10th anniversary. They take us to Adelaide Zoo and throw the best party I have attended in years. There is cake and glitter and balloons and men in shiny animal suits and Jon Bon Jovi. The euphoria and connection continue and the dance floor is packed.

I leave the conference as a different human. I feel closer to my Ikigai than ever. I have newly found confidence that I can achieve my goals. I have invited myself to teach at an overseas course WHERE I CAN DIVE (and the invitation was accepted 🙂). I have connected with fabulous people and had them agree to mentor me on some of my own projects. I will finally kickstart the diversity and inclusion committee at my shop. And I want to share this with you all because it was fricking amazeballs.


  • Ellen is a FACEM at Prince if Wales hospital in Sydney, and the co-founder of Network of Women in Emergency Medicine ( Her core values are equity, integrity and honesty (perhaps sometimes a bit bluntly so, sorry!). Her passions are her kids, the ocean and genuinely connecting with people. If you ever run into her and she asks you how you are doing, please tell her the truth.



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