Travel and a Vocation for Caring

The vocation for palliative care is frequently yoked to a passion for travel. Perhaps it is because both, at their most transformative, require empathy and curiosity about our fellow humans. Whatever the reason, many palliative care practitioners are also globetrotters.

In some cases, they are even tour leaders – like Shyla Mills, CEO of Palliative Care South Australia. Somehow, she has manoeuvred the role of volunteer tour leader of palliative care study tours into her busy schedule.  

The passion for travel and caring was always in Shyla’s blood. Her father, Peter, was a GP and a hippie in the 70s. He worked in Bangladesh with Save the Children before Shyla was born and travelled throughout India, Nepal and Tibet in the 70s. It was during that time he met the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan teachers and became a Tibetan Buddhist.

Shyla grew up hearing stories of these countries and when she was 8, she travelled with her father to India. The experience was profoundly formative. It was there she decided she wanted to be a nurse and work in India. She also grew up as a second-generation western Buddhist, studying the teachings of compassion and wisdom.

L-R: Shyla,her father and sister in Tibet with prayer flags

After completing school, Shyla went straight into nursing for three years, completed her RN degree, travelled through India, Nepal and Tibet for 2 months - and loved it.

‘I was told if you want to volunteer overseas you need to work on the wards for two years,’ explains Shyla. ‘So, I completed a graduate year rotating throughout three wards in a large adult hospital and then a year in paediatric oncology. I cared for palliative care patients in all these rotations and knew it was where I wanted to focus on. However, my childhood dream to volunteer in Asia was my priority so I bought a ticket to Asia to meet friends and volunteer.’ She adds, somewhat wryly, ‘I had a 22-year-old’s mindset that I can just arrive and ‘volunteer’!’

‘I wanted to help but didn’t really know where to start - I wasn’t at all organised and hadn’t volunteered with any specific agency,’ says Shyla. She was in Nepal at the time and visited Kopan Monastery, where she started helping in their little clinic. They had over 200 monks and nuns living there, ranging from ages 8-80, plus travellers who visited from all over the world.

After a few months she went to South India and volunteered in a small hospital in a Tibetan refugee settlement. Her father came to visit and ended up volunteering there, too.

The pattern of the next stage of Shyla’s life was set. For the next few years, she continued to travel, study Tibetan Buddhism and volunteer. She would go to the UK for a three-month stint each year while her visa was renewed and work as a nurse to earn enough money to travel and volunteer again.

‘I was then asked to help in Mongolia,’ says Shyla. ‘I lived in Ulaan Baatar for 18 months and in my mid 20s found myself the Assistant Director of a Mongolian Buddhist centre, which had a beautiful large monastery and nunnery. We set up a soup kitchen and small clinic for the homeless and a café for tourists. It was an amazing place to live.’

Sadly, this enriching period in Shyla’s life came to an unexpected close when she contracted paratyphoid and became seriously ill. She returned to Australia and after recovering, studied a Master of Palliative Care and started working as a paediatric palliative care nurse.

‘I loved those travelling and volunteering years of my life,’ reflects Shyla. ‘I learnt so much - so much more than I gave and will always be grateful to everyone who taught me over those years and allowed me to volunteer.’ She thinks for a moment. ‘It was such a great lesson in seeing health as a whole - through the lens of the whole person. While I needed to treat their injury, ailment or illness, I couldn’t do that without understanding their story. Being in a different culture I couldn’t just make assumptions of how the injury or illness emerged or how they/who would provide the care afterwards. I needed to learn to listen.’

Another thing Shyla took away from her experiences was the great kindness and compassion of the families and communities. ‘There was always a carer available and a community ready and willing to help and support. Often there was a carer sleeping under the patient’s bed on the cold floor in the hospitals, who would make them food, wash them and talk with them.’

Shyla went on to study a Master of Public Health, in the era when public health palliative care was emerging. In 2009, she received a scholarship to attend a palliative care study tour to South India, run by Jon Baines Tours, with Gilly Burns as tour leader. The tour ended in Kerala at the first Public Health and Palliative Care Conference. To this day, Shyla remains in contact with people across the globe that were on that tour and things have come full circle, with Shyla today being a tour leader of palliative care study tours for the same tour operator.

Shyla went on to marry Jason, an Associate Professor of Palliative and End of Life Care, with whom she is busy raising two boys, so her travelling has been reduced over the past decade. She has been the CEO of Palliative Care peak bodies (first in Queensland and now in South Australia) since 2017 and has been able to bring her learnings of advocacy, diversity and public health palliative care from those years to her role today.

Shyla led her first Jon Baines Tours study tour to Alice Springs in 2022. ‘It was lovely to see Australia in a different way, create connections with other health professionals and visit palliative care services and colleagues,’ she says.

So, what’s next in the full and busy life of Shyla Mills?

Her eyes light up at the question. ‘I’m so looking forward to returning to Nepal to lead my next palliative care tour in March next year,’ she says with a smile. ‘Learning from different cultures is amazing and such a privilege.’

We could not agree more.

Shyla is leading Palliative and End of Life Care in Nepal for Jon Baines Tours from 24 March – 4 April 2025.

For more information or to book, email or call us on (020) 7223 5618 (UK) or (03) 9343 6367 (Australia), or visit the webpage.

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Karen Ginnane
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