17 January 2019

Claire Demeo reflects on her time in Groote


I can’t believe how fast three weeks can fly by. It feels like I only left for Darwin yesterday, and yet now I am on the plane heading back to Melbourne. But even though the time has gone so quickly, I have had so many experiences to last a lifetime.

I was fortunate enough to travel to Groote Eylandt as part of the John Flynn Placement Program this December, located off the east coast of Arnhem Land. It is an absolutely beautiful place, with picturesque beaches (although no swimming, because there are crocodiles), and such welcoming people from the Anindilyakwa Aboriginal community. They have a rich and vibrant language, which the locals speak fluently, and still practice traditional art, dance and cooking. It was fabulous to see that the Anindilyakwa people have been able to hold on to their beautiful language and traditions, and there is fantastic work being done on Groote to continue to keep their culture alive and thriving. They have a beautiful art gallery in Alyangula, filled with amazing paintings, fabrics and prints by local Aboriginal women. I was also fortunate enough to see the opening of the Umbakumba art gallery on the east side of the island and talk to some of the local artists who are continuing to pass on their traditions to their children and grandchildren.

The Anindilyakwa art centre is only one of many fantastic initiatives on the island which allow locals to embrace their talents and share them with the world. There is also the Bush Medijina group, who make health products such as soaps, lip balms and body scrubs out of traditional, local ingredients, and sell them both in the art gallery and online (https://bushmedijina.com.au/). There is also the Angurugu community garden, where locals help to grow fresh produce such as bananas and mangoes, which are then sold to locals, providing both jobs, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables, to the community.

The John Flynn Placement Program not only allowed me to immerse myself in the Anindilyakwa culture, but it also provided me with the opportunity to see some incredible medicine in such a remote location. There are actually 5 communities serviced by the health workforce located on Groote Eylandt; Alyangula, which is predominantly a mining community, Angurugu (where I spent the majority of my time), Umbakumba, Bickerton Island and Numbulwar. To service all these communities, there were only 3 doctors. Therefore, a lot of the work was undertaken by Remote Area Nursing staff, who are an inspirational group of men and women who I was very fortunate to work with. They welcomed me into their practice and showed me what it is truly like to work as a health professional in a remote community.

Groote was well resourced when it came to basic medications, allowing the treatment of common conditions seen in Top End Aboriginal communities such as scabies, Strongyloides and acute otitis media and ongoing treatment of rheumatic heart disease, diabetes and bronchiectasis. However, many patients were also required to be evacuated off the island for treatment in larger hospitals in Gove or Darwin. As a result of there being many sick people due to suboptimal living conditions in Angurugu, and less health literacy and understanding, the clinic was always busy, and most days a patient would be evacuated to Gove or Darwin for further treatment. Jenni, the clinic manager at Angurugu, did a phenomenal job of keeping everything under control, and I seriously don’t know how she keeps up with everything that is going on at a single point in time. The staff at remote clinics are incredibly talented at multitasking, managing a variety of patients, and staying calm when faced with chaos.

Additionally, I was also fortunate enough to work with other teams at the clinic, such as the Alcohol and Other Drugs team, who go out into the community and work to minimise the impacts of addiction on people’s lives. This is an incredibly important role, as substance abuse does impact the health of many in the community, both directly and indirectly, and to have a service like this available is absolutely vital. It is certainly a challenging job, but one which many benefit from, and takes hard work and dedication from both the staff and clients.

I also worked at the school with the nurse coordinating the health of children and infants, which was a very fun experience. On my second day, I got to go and help teach young girls about sexual education, and learn about their perceptions of health and relationships. We had local women come with us, and translate the English information into Anindilyakwa, which was fantastic to see, and we then enjoyed a relaxing few hours having lunch together and cooling down in the pool. Not only was it inspirational to get to know such talented young girls, who could speak multiple languages, and took a real interest in their health, but it was also so rewarding to see the community leaders and health centre working together to improve health outcomes, through promoting education in language, and the use of culturally appropriate resources. If improvements are going to be made in the area of Aboriginal health, then community consultation and engagement is key, and I was so fortunate to be a part of this.

Finally, one of the other key things I took away from my experience on Groote was not related to Aboriginal health or culture or medicine at all. It was about what it is like to live in such an isolated location and the importance of connections with others. The community of Groote, and particularly the staff at the health centre, were all so welcoming, and living with one of the local doctors was a fantastic support network during my stay. I also experienced some of the challenges living in the tropics, such as cyclone Owen passing by, a little too close for comfort, and the heat and humidity which I wasn’t accustomed to, living in Melbourne for my whole life. But this was all part of the fun and I wouldn’t have changed any of it.

Thank you for a once in a lifetime experience and I can’t wait to go back to Groote again for my next John Flynn Placement!

Claire Demeo