05 September 2017

Alex Umbers experiences Galiwinku, Elcho Island


Flying across Arnhem Land for the first time gave me a bird’s eye view of level remoteness I was about to find myself in. Three and half thousand kilometers from home and bound for Galiwinku, Elcho Island I wondered what my final placement as a John Flynn Medical Student would feel like. I had read about the success of Aboriginal Health Practitioner-led programs, the Strong Women, the Yolngu culture, the beautiful beaches.

The new Galiwinku clinic is staffed by both Balanda and Aboriginal Health practitioners, most of whom grew up on Elcho. They know the place like the back of their hand, where to find patients, who is away, who is due for their shots, family structures, and where to find bush medicine. Most consults are conducted as a team, working together between local health workers and visiting staff, making it a culturally safe and engaging process for practitioners and patients. It’s easy to see why this model of health care provision works in remote communities.

The Yolngu staff were very welcoming to their student. I was invited to go
hunting in the mangroves and for rock oysters Alex Umbers (my technique needs work), and to attend a special baby smoking ceremony. I was shown by the Strong Women which tree bark is good for asthma and which is good for skin sores. “It's breathing, it's fresh, it's alive, what more could you want from bush medicine” Helen, one of the Strong woman mused while were out bush. I was fortunate enough to assist on a homelands' outreach clinic to Mapuru, a small community and via an even smaller plane. Elcho Island is also beautiful, and quite safe to take an evening stroll, see people enjoy eating the days catch on the beach and enjoy the sunsets. Coming from a Victorian winter, the weather was glorious.

Time flew on the island. I was fortunate enough to gain experience in parallel consulting in child health, acute care, chronic care plans, and assist in resuscitations and medevacs. The clinic also hosted a special family planning evening. Being in my final year of medical school I could also see how much I had learned since my first John Flynn placement (in a different community) where I first learned to cannulate. Now confident in recognizing and responding to a deteriorating patient John Flynn placements are an excellent platform to gain practical clinical skills. Beyond the day to day activities, this experience was a salient reminder of the gap in health and access to health care for Indigenous Australians, and the ongoing need (and opportunity) for committed people, programs and policies to work this space.

As a medical student, the John Flynn program gets you places you couldn’t otherwise experience. It allowed me to experience the depth and breadth of remote medicine, work with aboriginal communities, experience adventure and culture never imagined in my home state. Experiences like these sow the seeds for future careers and I’m very grateful to the NTGPE for their support over the years – I hope to return to the NT soon!

Alex Umbers
Alex Umbers