Wangkatjungka. More than 2,500kms away from Adelaide, in the hot and harsh lands that border the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia’s north. In 2006 it was not yet on Google maps; it was a tiny remote Aboriginal Community of 200 men, women and children hundreds of kilometres down the end of a dirt road.
However, it was to be the place that fired Chevaun Howard’s imagination for her future career.
Chevaun had left her home in Adelaide to study medicine at Notre Dame University in Fremantle and went north on one of Notre Dame’s annual rural and remote placements for med students. With her imagination piqued, Rural Clinical School the following year in Kalgoorlie sealed her commitment to a career in rural and remote health.
“It was so different – you were allowed to do procedural things such as cannulas and catheters, you assisted in theatre and felt like you were really a part of the team in a deeper way than feels possible as a student in a big busy metropolitan centre.
“If I had not had that enjoyable experience where I got to do a lot and learn a lot and see what you can do as a rural GP, I may not have considered GP because my limited placements as a student in a metropolitan practice had been a very different experience.
“There was much more of a focus on getting ‘hands on’ experience in the Rural Clinical School, one of our requirements was to do 10 deliveries - and be actually involved with the deliveries, not just observing them. Often in the city there was so many others needing delivery experience, sometimes you’d only be able to observe and missed the actual ‘hands on’ part. You’re also involved with the patient care from the very beginning and then you got to be part of that birth experience. “In that 12 months in the Rural Clinical School, I said ‘yep’ I definitely want to pursue this further.”
Ultimately, ‘further’ has taken Chevaun back to the Kimberley.
After graduating she undertook pre-vocational GP training and worked in Derby as a locum before returning to Perth for two years of training in paediatrics and obstetrics at Princess Margaret and King Edward Memorial hospitals.
They were skills she knew would be of benefit to her when working as a rural GP in Western Australia’s remote north.
“Coming back to Broome (in 2014), I could combine all the things that I love – general practice, obstetrics, paediatrics and Aboriginal health.
“I enjoy the wide scope of practice and the complexity of a lot of our patients; I enjoy going out to these communities and providing care and getting to know my patients really well and having that long term relationship with them.”
Chevaun is now the mother of her own three young children, including twins. After a short break following their birth, she returned to work part-time in July 2015, and a year later resumed her connection with her patients at Bidyadanga, the state’s biggest Aboriginal community situated on the coast 200kms south of Broome.
“Previously my week involved three days in Bidyadanga. I would fly to the community on a Monday, do the day’s clinic and fly back in the afternoon. Then on Tuesday I would drive down with another GP colleague and stay overnight in the community, do the Wednesday clinic and drive back that afternoon.
“KAMS (Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Service) allowed me the flexibility to work at the hospital one day a week, so on Thursday I would do obstetrics there, and then Friday would be a non-clinical day following up on all the results from the three days in the community. I kept going to the community up until I was 33 weeks pregnant with twins.
“I am going to be returning to Bidyadanga one day a fortnight and can continue that continuity again with my patients. It is quite complex and can be challenging but that’s a part of why I do really enjoy working in Aboriginal health.”