Everyone experiences loss, in different ways and at different times. Each loss has a different meaning. I’d worked in Aurukun about a year and a half and decided I’d stay for another year and a half. I bought a Toyota landcruiser, rescued a camp dog puppy and was given a scrawny bedraggled looking black kitten, with a car and pets I was ready to settle for a bit longer in a place far from home. Fasi and I nursed our puppy named with the Samoan word for baby, Pepe, to health. We delighted in her antics, Fasi even let her sleep on him. When she was about six months old I went to Samoa for a few weeks to visit Fasi as he’d returned to care for his elderly mother, and arranged for a nurse who lived next door to care for her.
Apparently all went well until the day before I was due to fly back into the community, Pepe became unwell with gastro symptoms. I wasn’t contacted. I had only her to look forward to seeing when I returned, as Fasi had left Aurukun permanently. I kept imagining her joyful welcome during the long flights from Brisbane to Cairns to Aurukun.
As soon as I reached the gate to my yard in the semi-dark of a Cape York evening I knew there was something wrong. The manager of the clinic came across and told me she put Pepe to sleep herself that morning. She hadn’t bothered to phone me.
I walked away and up my steps and sunk to the floor once inside and sobbed. I phoned Fasi in Samoa to tell him and we both cried. It seemed such an unnecessarily cruel thing to do, normally the nurses do all they can to save each others dogs.
I lasted a few days and handed in my resignation, I couldn’t work with the attitude of that manager.
There isn’t just one side to a loss. I felt Pepe’s death keenly, especially the way she died and the thoughtlessness of a nurse from whom people would expect better. After a few days Fasi rightly pointed out that Pepe would have kept me in Aurukun had she lived, I couldn’t travel with a dog. So I reluctantly turned to the next stage in my remote area nursing journey and took up life as an agency nurse, travelling over the top end of Australia experiencing places and people I barely knew existed.
Thank you Pepe.
History put things in context. It isn’t just a boring subject with datelines and exam questions. It lives when stories are recounted and to the listening ear it gives a lot of answers.
I’m writing a memoir of my working life as a remote area nurse and I’ve struggled with how to write about some things I’ve seen in Indigenous communities. I don’t want to add to the negative views already held by much of the dominant culture. I was pondering all this during my last contract in East Arnhem land in the Northern Territory when I had the good fortune to attend a workshop on cross-cultural understanding hosted by Richard Trudgen. He prefaced the two days by giving a short history of East Arnhem land. After he’d presented the past, the present was more easily understood.
I realized that my writing needed some history of Aurukun and other places to put the present into context. I found three well researched television documentaries about Aurukun from the ABC program “Four Corners”. Dating from the late 1070’s. I wasn’t prepared to be moved to tears by the interruption to the lives of local people from state government intervention with the introduction of alcohol, that alone caused social destruction on a large scale.
Now my writing is stuck at my time in Alice Springs…so here I go again to research some history of that place an
My first day off after starting work in the clinic in the remote Indigenous community of Aurukun, in far north Queensland, was spent walking around the few paved roads photographing the obvious landmarks of church, store, airstrip and police station. I wanted to take photos of the things that shocked or surprised me, the skinny mangy dogs, the rundown houses, families sitting on the bare ground cooking food over open fires. The intimate things like the profile of a grandmother, a naked child playing with a scrawny puppy or the women whirling out their cast nets in a wide white circle to catch a small fish meal. But I didn’t dare point my camera at any of those things. I still wonder about that, are people’s lives that are lived in a public space open to portrayal on film? I was concerned to not be intrusive or to add to any negative images the dominant white culture already has of such communities. But, now that I’m more experienced with my camera, I wish I’d at least asked some of the local adults if I could photograph them going about their ordinary lives, if for no other reason than to retain my memory of them, and of course, to offer them copies for posterity.
The photo here is the one I took of the store, not nearly as interesting as a group of people or a simple portrait.
How many times do we hear the news of a traumatic death in the media? We might stop for a moment and think how shocking it is or we might not even do that, we might be too busy to ponder anything except the task at hand. I remember when I worked in hospital I often thought, after I’d nursed someone with a broken leg, that never again would I say “oh, that’s good they just got a broken leg” after hearing about an accident. Until you see injury and death up close you don’t realize just how physical it is, how weighty and wearing on all involved.
A year into my remote area nursing I was called to a stabbing where a short while later the victim died. I couldn’t sleep properly for weeks. The sheer physicality of the event had lodged in my imagination, I couldn’t get free of the movie that kept replaying in my mind.
I saw a visiting psychiatrist who told me that the murder had ticked every box indicating it was indeed traumatic, but as I spoke to him throughout the week he was visiting the community, he told me in his opinion, I’d been more traumatised by a sequence of events involving bullying by two nurse colleagues in a hospital prior to me working as a RAN.
What traumatises us is as unique to each of us, as is what contribute to our recovery, and the time and the journey our healing takes.
For me, I’ve always needed to get out into nature on my own and just be. It somehow seems to put emotional upsets into a larger, calmer context. Pictured here was my favourite getting out into nature spot in Aurukun, the landing, where I often walked to after work and sat until sunset or the mosquitoes came out.
I just finished reading a book called “Madness: a memoir” by Melbourne doctor, Kate Richards. It’s an honest and poignant account of her experience with mental illness. She ends the book by saying…”I’m grateful to be living in a country where medication and therapy are mostly available and affordable. However even in Australia, we are still not caring for the most vulnerable members of our communities. Those who, through no fault of their own, are not as lucky as I have been to respond to medication or to be able to find the right kind of therapy. These people are of all ages and backgrounds, and we ignore their suffering because most of us don’t understand their ways of seeing the world or we are afraid of their difference or embarrassed by their appearance and because we don’t see their injuries. No-one ever wakes up one morning and thinks, today I’d like to go mad, lose my job and friends, and end up odd-looking and living on the streets, anymore than they think, today I’d like to get cancer.”
Aurukun has the highest number of mental health clients in Cape York and is serviced well by visiting mental health teams. The RFDS built a Wellbeing Centre (pictured here) in the grounds of the clinic a few years ago which offers support, counselling and education. But providing services is just one way to support “vulnerable members of our communities”, having, and showing, kindness and compassion, firstly on ourselves in our demanding work as remote area nurses and then to others is the key to our continuing mental health and our patients healing.
Every Australian knows what the RFDS is and what work they do. Every remote area nurse will at some stage in their lives have looked longingly at the sky to see the first glint of silver approaching or strained to hear a faint engine rumble along with hopes that their patient would stay stable during the wait.
During the two years I worked in Aurukun and later in other far away places it was the knowledge that the RFDS was only a phone call and a flight away that enabled me to work without overwhelming fear. I still marvel at it’s history and the initial concept of a “mantle of safety” covering outback Australia. What a man of vision John Flynn must have been. Barely a day went by when I worked in Aurukun that I didn’t enjoy working in partnership with the RFDS staff based in Cairns. I think as Australia Day comes around again the RFDS can be numbered among our local heroes.
Living and working in a remote place offers few options for recreation. A doctor once slowly enunciated that word for me to explain why I needed more of it in my life…to “re-create” oneself, to “recharge” one’s energies. When I lived in Aurukun I fished, walked or read and that was about the limit of my choices. Fasi taught me to fish and we walked down to the landing at every opportunity to stand and stare at the water with a fishing rod in our hands. We often said to each other that fishing was just an excuse to get outside, if we caught a fish it was a bonus.
I experienced fishing as a perfect way to rest my mind. I listened to the quiet sound of water lapping the edge of the bank, watched dinghies and birds and water ripples and stared into the distance…the noise of the community and the rushing around in the clinic disappeared for a short time. It was a true re-creational activity.
When I first arrived in Aurukun I had a cheap “point and shoot” digital camera. I’d enjoyed taking photos for years but never had the confidence to buy and learn to use an SLR. The first weekend I was there I wandered off around the community taking the usual shots of the clinic, shop, post office and air strip. When I walked towards the church to take my last image for the morning I saw a huge pig on the grass in the church yard. It look oddly out of place there and so, of course, made an interesting picture. I didn’t need an expensive camera to grab that moment in time, just the eye to see it.
Now years later and the owner of an SLR and doing a course to learn how to use it I still think a photographer must have the eye to see and the intuitive feel for what makes an interesting composition. Good shots can still be captured on a cheapie camera, price isn’t everything.
Incidentally, I never saw that pig again!
Have you ever had the experience of a few simple words changing your life? I have, over five years ago sitting on a red Weston’s flour drum at the landing in Aurukun, Fasi was sitting next to me watching local women fish as the November sun set. They were his words, “In my country we have a saying, when the sun goes down it’s the end of the day.” He first spoke them softly in Samoan and I thought I’d never heard anything so wise and sweet. I won’t tell you the rest of the story, except to say, I can still hear the whispered words in my imagination and their simplicity still makes me smile and it’s become a joke between us. I fell in love with him that evening.
Here is fasi and our friend, the cockatoo outside the Aurukun clinic in 2009.