Hear here: Going with the flow
The Remote Area Health Corps (RAHC) is a federally-funded programme established to recruit, culturally orientate and place Health Professionals in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in the Northern Territory (NT).
On chilly nights in Tasmania, Andrea Lovatt gets a warm glow when she thinks of her trips to the Northern Territory (NT). She recalls her rewarding work as a paediatric audiologist in scenic spots where the daytime temperatures can soar to 43 degrees.
‘I was working at a Hobart practice when I heard about RAHC at an audiology conference and signed up straight away. I’d previously done outreach work in the East Kimberley and Nhulunbuy on the Gove Peninsula, so I knew what was involved.
‘My employers proved supportive and gave me leave without pay. So, three times a year, I’ll do a two-week paid placement with RAHC.’
Those placements have taken Andrea to Wadeye and Galliwin’ku (Elcho Island) in the Top End and several Central Australian communities, including Hermannsburg, Owairtilla (Canteen Creek), Yuelamu and Ampilatwatja.
‘I focus on paediatric audiology, examining and treating children and young adults up to the age of 21. Together with an ENT nurse, we work as a close team,’ she says.
A middle ear infection, or otitis media, is more common in children than adults. Caused by a bacterium or virus, symptoms can include fever, ear pain and discharge. If left untreated, it may become chronic and affect hearing or lead to a burst eardrum.
‘A particular concern is children under the age of six,’ says Andrea, ‘as at that time they are learning rapidly and there is major speech development. So, it’s important for us to help prevent or minimise any long-term hearing loss.’
Hearing booths help towards this aim. ‘This soundproof booth looks like a shipping container and we’re thrilled some communities have one on-site. It lets us test children under the age of three who are too young for a headphone test. We present a sound and teach the child to turn their head. They’ll see a puppet light up as their reward.’
Providing such an audiology service to remote communities is vital, Andrea says, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children experience middle ear diseases at a younger age than non-Indigenous children. The social and economic reasons causing this are many and varied. They include harsh living conditions and overcrowded homes.
‘There can often be multiple families living in a three or four-bedroom house, with one bathroom, in a hot and dusty environment. Smoking can also be a factor, so we advise carers not to smoke around children.’
Education is an important part of the audiology visit and the team advises on nose-blowing, ‘to get the congestion out’, as well as hand and face-washing.
‘We let people know how to manage an ear infection and how to keep the ear dry.
‘I travel with an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) nurse. We both look in the ear, check middle ear function, and agree on treatment.
‘We’ll see conditions that never would occur in an urban setting, where people have ready access to specialist services. One young boy, for example, was in severe pain with chronic discharge from his ear. The ENT nurse took ‘photos, contacted the ENT surgeon in Darwin and the boy was flown out that night. The surgeon operated the following day. That was amazing.’
The most rewarding aspects of Andrea’s work with RAHC are meeting the children and carers, and then seeing the results of a visit. ‘We may see children two years after an operation when their ears are much better and their hearing is good.’
On a personal level, she’s learnt to go with the flow. ‘We have no control, of the weather or what’s happening in the community.
‘In early 2020, Cyclone Esther chased us around the Barkly Tableland, cancelling our visit to Wogyala. The road was cut off and impassable. So, we travelled to another community on high alert as the river could come up rapidly and trap us.’
Travel is by light plane, providing magnificent views, or along red dirt roads in a four-wheel drive. ‘Once the directions were to turn left at the old tyre in the middle of the road!’
She feels privileged to meet people and see parts of the country that few do. ‘You know Australia’s a big place. but you don't appreciate it until you've been here. The sky is different, the scenery is vast and open. There are swarms of budgerigars at the moment and it’s a breathtaking sight when they suddenly take off.’
Andrea was excited to work in the community of Papunya, some 240 kilometres northwest of Alice Springs, well-known for the Papunya Tula dot paintings since the 1970s. ‘Not only was I able to purchase a stunning painting but the artist happened to be there and signed the back of it,’ says Andrea.
Returning to a Tasmanian winter can be a sobering experience. ‘When I land in Hobart, there’s no aerobridge, so it can be a huge shock walking down the stairs of the ‘plane. I’ve learnt to pack a puffer jacket in my carry-on luggage. Then I’ll go home and have a hot bath.’
For more information about short-term paid placements with RAHC, visit www.rahc.com.au or call 1300 697 242.