Lajamanu is remote. Very remote. 550km outside of Katherine, and 900kms from Darwin, just 670 people call the Indigenous community home.
Lajamanu is more recently known for a bizarre phenomenon when, in February 2010, hundreds of live fish rained down upon the town over two successive days, with a tornado believed to have sucked up the fish, which were then frozen at high altitudes and thawed as they fell, hundreds of kilometres from their origin.
But despite this strange act of nature, like all small remote communities, at the heartbeat of the community’s health is the health of the local residents. And for recent GP Fellow and now Lajamanu-based GP Dr Catherine Pendrey, there isn’t anything else she’d rather be doing.
Despite growing up in the bustling city of Melbourne and studying medicine at the urban campus of Monash University, Catherine was always attracted to rural and remote health.
“I’ve always been very interested in connecting with people from different backgrounds,” she said.
“All throughout medical school, we would always hear that in Australia there is a real workforce distribution issue, with not enough doctors in the bush and too many doctors in the city, often competing for scarce jobs as specialists.
“A lot of rural and remote communities struggle to recruit general practitioners, so can face challenges accessing primary health care. I think it’s quite motivating to be working in an area where you have the opportunity to improve access to health care.”
In pursuing her passion for remote health, Catherine joined the John Flynn Placement Program in remote communities around Broken Hill, and completed medical electives in Broome and the Dampier Peninsula in the vast Kimberley region of Western Australia.
“I love discovering new places and meeting new people, and working in remote areas gives you the opportunity to discover some really magical, natural places,” she said.
“In my early years of hospital training, I enjoyed all the different areas of medicine, but the idea of focusing on one specialty area didn’t appeal to me.
“People experience their health as a whole person, and in general practice you have the opportunity to provide holistic care from the cradle to the grave.
“I also think the more time I spent in hospital, the more interested I became in helping people stay out of hospital. That’s where people prefer to be – healthy and living their lives.
“In general practice, you can work on preventative health and work with people to help them achieve their health goals, which is really rewarding.”
Catherine is another success story of the Australian General Practice Training (AGPT) Program through NTGPE.
A recipient of the Professor Alan Walker Paediatric Scholarship, Catherine undertook her GP training in Alice Springs, Katherine, and the remote Central Australia region.
“The reason I was attracted to the Northern Territory is that NTGPE has quite a structured program to ensure GPs in training gain experience in both remote health, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health,” she said.
“It was important to me to undertake my GP training where I would gain the skills to work in those settings. The training opportunities in the NT are really incredible.
“I studied languages at high school, and always loved travelling, so the opportunity to explore new places and work in a cross-cultural setting really appealed to me.
“You can learn new ideas and ways of understanding the world, and that broadens your perspective.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Catherine’s commitment to working for remote communities has twice meant spending fortnight-long spells in quarantine in the NT after returning from Melbourne after spending time with her husband, also a doctor.
“I want to keep working in the NT, and coming and going can be a sustainable model of health care in very remote areas. If you can keep coming back to the same place, you can achieve quite a high level of continuity,” she said.
“Often sharing the role of working alongside another doctor, it is possible to work more sustainably and stay on in the longer term.”
Catherine says a major positive of being a GP in the Northern Territory is the connection and continuity you can achieve with a patient.
“When people choose to come back to see you, that means you’ve earned their trust, and that’s rewarding,” she said.
“There was one gentleman who I saw for an occupational health check in Alice Springs, and I noticed he had a nasty looking mark on his face, and I said it was important for him to come back so I could take a biopsy and work out what it was.
“He was extremely anxious about interacting with the healthcare system, and it took a lot of phone calls to get him to come back and a fair bit of pestering.
“It actually turned out to be a large melanoma, but we were able to completely remove it at an early stage, before it had spread.
“That’s an example where you can use your relationship with a patient to intervene and save someone a whole lot of grief.”
Catherine sees it as a real privilege to be able to live and work in remote Aboriginal communities and learn from First Australians.
“I’ve had some really positive experiences where I’ve been able to connect with Traditional Owners and healers, and what I’ve taken away from those connections is something I’ll continue to cherish,” she added.
When asked where she sees herself in five years, Catherine says she’d still like to be working in remote Aboriginal health in the NT.
“I’d like to have progressed in my new role as a medical educator, and also contribute to improving how we deliver health care, and address the health impacts of climate change.
“Along with COVID-19, it’s a public health emergency we need to address that is already affecting community health.”
Catherine has continued her association with NTGPE as a medical educator, and encourages future GPs to think about undertaking their training in the Territory.
“There are so many diverse, rewarding careers you can have in the Northern Territory,” she said.
“You can work in public health, hospital medicine, community health, medical education, academia, remote medicine, and many other areas.
“There can be challenges when working in remote settings, but I think if you come to the NT while you’re undertaking your general practice training, you have access to NTGPE’s support and that can be really helpful.
“For me, I can’t imagine anything else I’d rather be doing, and anywhere else I’d rather be working.”
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