2017 Scholarship Report – Gabrielle Brailsford

A Brush with Rural Medicine
Gabrielle Brailsford (Med V)

I recently had the privilege of travelling to Weipa in Far North Queensland as part of the Cape York Eye Health Project. The project delivers specialist ophthalmology services to some of Australia’s most re mote Aboriginal communities. It was pioneered in year 2000 by an ophthalmologist with a passion for Indigenous health. The team is made up of ophthalmologists, anaesthetists, nurses and Indigenous healthcare workers who work alongside the local primary care providers. Most of the team have been involved since the very beginning. Overall, it was an unforgettable experience that greatly enhanced my understanding of rural medicine.

The project operates like a well-oiled machine. Healthcare workers venture out into some of Australia’s most remote Aboriginal communities (for example, Aurukun), travel with the patients on a small plane to Weipa. Getting the patients on the plane can be quite the feat, but this year we had the best turn out yet! The surgery is carried out at Weipa Hospital, a small but well-equipped hospital with a 3-bed emergency department, a single ward and an operating theatre. Most patients were there to have cataract surgery, which for such a minimally invasive procedure has amazing results. After their surgery the patients spend the night at a nearby motel before flying back to their communities the following day – with their vision restored! For most of our patients, it was an exceptionally foreign experience. Some had never travelled outside of their community before. One patent inquisitively remarked to me, “I wonder where we are camping tonight”.

The Aboriginal people I met exuded a remarkable sense of dignity, pride and cheekiness. Physically, their beauty is astounding, with their striking features and unblemished skin. Their commitment to culture and tradition is exciting and I left feeling inspired to learn more about their past. At the same time, I saw first hand the difference in their health outcomes. All of our patients were living with diabetes or heart disease, yet few were able to name their medications. Many of the Aboriginal ladies shared with me their experiences with violence and there was no denying their battle scars. From the comfort of the Hobart Clinical School it is very easy to deny the struggles that the Aboriginal people continue to face. But their reality becomes much clearer when you experience it firsthand. I was reminded how important cultural sensitivity is in order to show patients the respect and empathy needed to meet the health needs of others.

My short-lived experience of rural medicine showed me that it can be both extremely challenging and fulfilling. To see doctors practise without the safety blanket of CT machines and pathology services was mind-boggling. But simultaneously, it was comforting to know that clinical acumen still has a place in modern western medicine. I can appreciate that the social and professional isolation that comes with working remotely would be difficult to overcome, especially for younger doctors relocating on their own. However, there was also an overwhelming sense of community and purpose that I personally have not experienced in larger tertiary centres.

Australia is extremely unique in that its vastness lends itself to remote communities with such significantly unmet health needs. But at the same, with the right tools (willing doctors!), we do have the infrastructure to meet these needs. By stepping outside of Hobart I was reminded just how vast and diverse the world of medicine in Australia can be. It is an ideal place to challenge yourself professionally but also contribute to society. Huge thank you to RUSTICA for that scholarship the scholarship that made my trip so much more feasible.