Her work sees her spend a significant amount of time working in aged care facilities, where empathy, understanding, good communication and analytical thinking are essential skills – particularly in a time of fear and uncertainty.
“You have to connect,” says Mahmood Martin. “Older people are not just ‘old people’, they have led interesting lives, and you have to get to know their interests and who they are; they are not just their illness.”
Understanding your patient is also about knowing yourself. When building a supportive environment, there are times when a doctor needs to know when to step away and let others connect. “Ego goes out the window, as the patient comes first.”
Mahmood Martin was born in Malaysia and studied Medicine at the University of Malaya. She describes Malaysia as a truly multicultural society, something that underpins both her approach to medicine and her art practice.
At boarding school in the United Kingdom she discovered a deep love of art. “I came to a fork in the road when I discovered the extent of my love for art at school. My A-level subjects were physics, chemistry, biology and art. My parents, both medical practitioners, expected me to follow in their footsteps but I began to have different ideas. Art was always there; all my senses came alive in the studio,” she says. But she wanted also to be independent, and medicine could offer her that.
There were other crossroads in her career; at one time, Mahmood Martin was heading in the direction of plastic surgery, but decided against it. “I come from too strong [a] lineage of women to work in plastic surgery,” she reflects. “I don’t judge it, [but] I just wasn’t prepared to do that.” Later there was another change, this time for love. Mahmood Martin found Adelaide and it became her home.
“I’m lucky to have had many people close to me who have influenced me profoundly. My mother instilled a strong sense of right and wrong into me and discipline made me tough. I could not have survived the challenges without that strength and independence she helped me build. She also taught me many of the making skills I have, and the appreciation of the hand made. She was a fantastic, clinically skilled GP.
“My father, who loved me unconditionally, told me I could do anything I set my heart to do but I had to be prepared to work hard. Gender did not come into it. He was a visionary.
“My husband, Geoff Martin, who is the other man in my life to love me unreservedly, encouraged me to go back to art school when the children were a bit older because he knew I needed to. It was not about ‘giving permission’ – because he knows I will do what I want anyway – but his support has been tremendous.”
Studying at the Adelaide Central School of Art, Mahmood Martin says, “art school opened my eyes to a community that accepted difference.”
Mahmood Martin creates prints and textiles, allowing space for expression while keeping some privacy as a GP. “I have difficulties in art, in that we are trained to be neutral as a GP, because we cannot judge others, but in art we are expected to allow our emotions to influence our work. As a full-time medical practitioner, there are so many emotions I cannot allow to surface in my art. I have, however, always needed to make art since I was young. So, it is a dilemma for me. This is why I have spent more time, learning new techniques, researching eastern iconography and exploring decorative arts in the form of needlework and batik.”
Mahmood Martin’s art practice is not a hobby. Time is of the essence especially in printmaking, a creative process that embeds time into a picture or piece of textile in a very particular way. There is a layering of images that requires patience and care. The approach seems akin to caring for patients.
The Mahmood Martin Foundation, which she created in 2018, grew out of a project started at art school and promotes socio-cultural inclusiveness via the arts, food and human connection. The mandate of the foundation is to help Australia become a nation of true integration of cultures rather than assimilation. “The Foundation aims to break down barriers, [to] promote intercultural understanding by inviting the society at large to take part in conversations utilising visual arts and culture as its vehicle.”
Has working in nursing homes has changed her attitude towards ageing? “For me aging has never been a negative thing, and I have never thought of aging as a threat.” It is this attitude that she works to share with her patients and their loved ones as they compose themselves for the end of life process, making sure that their voices are heard and listened to.
“We are in an era where we think we can fix everything,” she reflects. “But we also need to reflect on what we can’t fix.”