RAHC Stories: Room with a View

The Remote Area Health Corps (RAHC) is a federally-funded programme established to recruit, culturally orientate and place urban-based Health Professionals in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in the Northern Territory (NT).

For those who enjoy wide-open spaces and an adventurous job that offers variety, flexibility, and rewarding challenges, look no further.

The life of Adelaide dental nurse Vicki McFarlane changed dramatically when a friend shared her experience of working for RAHC. ‘I looked at the website and knew immediately this was for me,’ Vicki says. ‘So, I applied for leave from my part-time job with the South Australian Dental Service.’

Her first three-week placement was in Laramba, a small community of some 200 people, an almost three hour drive north-west of Alice Springs. 

‘This was my first time working in an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and I was surprised to discover that English might be the fourth or fifth language spoken.’

14 years and more than 60 placements later, she’s constantly learning about the culture and is so hooked on the RAHC lifestyle and her work-life balance that she’s resigned completely from other dental work.

Life at home is now on a 50-acre farm a short drive from Noosa on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. And work can be at one of many locations throughout Central Australia and the Top End. These may be wildflower-sprinkled desert settings or beautiful palm-fringed beaches. 

Vicki works alongside a dentist or dental therapist. 

Instead of ‘driving back and forth on the same stretch of a city highway’, she’ll leap into a 4WD traversing red dirt and dry creek beds or hop into a light aircraft soaring above glorious coastline.

‘Every day and every community is different. That goes for the dental clinic too. We’ve worked out of community health centres, mobile trucks and shipping containers. Once, we even set up on a veranda and another time inside a shed.

‘Unlike a suburban clinic, a remote dental nurse is receptionist, chairside assistant and instrument steriliser. We do everything ourselves, from loading equipment into the vehicle or aircraft

to setting up the surgery, displaying posters about our visit and introducing ourselves to the locals.’

The dental work itself, often busy with eager patients queuing up, is fulfilling. ‘Not too many attend for just a check-up or clean,’ Vicki says. ‘They’ll usually come in with terrible toothache. Sadly, by that stage, an extraction may be the only option.

‘We see the full range, from elderly people with a healthy dentition due to a good bush diet to 20 and 30-year-olds that are well on their way to having no teeth at all.

‘While relief of pain may be the main reason for coming to us, our reward on leaving a community is knowing that those people can now get a good night’s sleep.’

The high sugar content of soft drinks consumed causes much dental damage, especially in children.  So preventative procedures, such as fissure sealing of teeth and setting up school toothbrushing programs by dental therapists, is vital. ‘Returning over the years, I’ve seen the great benefit of that,’ says Vicki.

Six placements per year suit her best and even complement her interests. ‘I’m into silver-smithing and always looking for rocks or gemstones on my walks before or after work. Tennant Creek is a fossicker’s paradise and I also collect seeds and gumnuts to make jewellery.

‘You have to be comfortable in your own company to be out here.’ She’ll take a roll of canvas, brushes and acrylics on each trip. ‘I’ve painted portraits of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and local wildlife such as eagles, perenties and Mertens water monitors.’

Other images remain in her mind; swarms of colourful budgies beside an unexpected waterhole close to dry, dusty Barrow Creek, crocodiles in the river or ocean, and the sandhills, spinifex and magnificent ghost gums at Docker River. ‘I’ve seen some amazing sights – Djuki Mala (the Chooky Dancers) rehearsing on a beach at Galliwin’ku (Elcho Island), and boats coming in with freshly-caught turtles on South Goulburn Island off Arnhem Land.’

Vicki has heard the music and rhythm of the yidaki (didgeridoo) and clapsticks, seen ochre-painted dancers perform, and gazed at massive waterfalls that come off Uluru during heavy rain.

All bonuses, as placement can be exhausting, ‘with often basic accommodation, spending 24/7 with a person you’ve never met before, and some communities can be challenging or noisy at night with barking dogs. I always take ear plugs with me.

‘You need to be a bit resilient and flexible too, as travel plans and locations can suddenly change, with flooded roads or equipment breakdown.’

Yet, the advantages far outnumber the disadvantages. ‘I feel blessed with the opportunities working for RAHC has given me.

‘The best thing about remote dental work is that it’s never boring or predictable.’ And that’s what keeps Vicki coming back for more. 

 

Written by Helen Chryssides, 2021

Thursday, 23 September 2021