Growing Our Own

Whilst over two-thirds of Australians live in urbanised cities, one in ten reside in outer regional areas, and around one in forty live remotely. One defining feature of geographic remoteness is that many Australians experience isolation when it comes to receiving healthcare services.

Heart of Australia’s NextGen Medics Program acts as a roadmap that enables medical or allied health students to experience the realities of working in rural healthcare. Kyle Fan,  one of our NextGen Medic Student Alumni, has always dreamed of working as a cardiac sonographer when he graduates his degree in cardiac sonography at the University of South Australia and is well on the path to that dream since taking up a position as a Medical Aide with Heart of Australia.

Kyle believed that the NextGen Medic Program would provide him with an “eye-opening experience that focused on mixing the outback’s challenges with learning more about the people and culture” as opposed to learning textbook scenarios. Upon his application, Kyle was successful in securing a place as a NextGen Medic student and as he began to immerse himself into the program, he explained that the program enabled himself and fellow medic students the ability to apply their academic understanding within genuine rural communities, helping those doing it tough.

It wasn’t until Kyle stepped onto the truck that he understood the severity of the healthcare inequity gap. There are vast numbers of people living rurally in Australia who have overcome challenges harder and greater than many of us in this lucky country would ever dream of. Kyle explained that one of his most memorable experiences was visiting the rural town, Theodore, where Dr Bruce Chater has been Theodore’s practice principal since 1981. Facilitating health clinics in rural and remote towns regularly where local medical professionals can work together with leading Heart of Australia specialists, relieves pertinent healthcare inequities. Kyle said, “it’s individuals like Dr Bruce Chater (the father of rural healthcare) who inspire me every day, I was determined to pay these opportunities within this program forward.”

A lack of understanding, due in part to the vast distance separating those living rurally and hearing stories of those who have unfortunately become ill, has led to fear for those living remotely. For students of the NextGen Medics Program, like Kyle, who have listened to and been inspired by past stories of those living rural, there are still so many equally tragic and inspirational stories yet to be told. The Heart of Australia NextGen program acts as a speedbump for those living rural, breaking down healthcare inequities due to distance and giving a new lease of life for first-time patients, all while providing invaluable learning opportunities for our students.

Since completing the NextGen program Kyle believes at the end of the day, “why shouldn’t those living rural have access to healthcare?” We should be able to give them, what is given to us in the city.

“Everyone deserves a fair go. Our patients are farmers who contribute to the community, grow our food and look after our livestock. They also pay taxes,” says Kyle.

“Giving everyone an equal opportunity and thinking about the bigger picture is important.” Living rural shouldn’t mean sacrificing one’s quality of life or lifespan.

The Heart of Australia NextGen program provides hope and greater accessibility of healthcare services to all Queenslanders living both rurally or very remotely. It provides future medical and allied health students just like Kyle the opportunity to kick-start their own journey in healthcare.

Since Kyle has completed the program, his dream to work in cardiac sonography has been reinvigorated, and he is excited to start the path to his career journey with Heart of Australia – first as a member of the NextGen Medics program and now as a Medical Aide, commencing sonography training with Heart of Australia in 2023.

The NextGen Medics Program is proudly supported by our program partner Bayer. To learn more about the program and to apply for the next intake, please click here:

Heart of Australia in rain, hail or sunshine

Heart of Australia has come to the aid of the people of NSW when they needed it most this week amidst torrential rain and flooding along the east coast. With many medical services on hold due to the unusual weather event, Heart of Australia was able to deliver life-saving cardiology clinics in the NSW/Queensland border community of Goondiwindi on Tuesday March 1. 

A quarter of the patients attending this clinic were from NSW. Since Heart of Australia’s inception in 2014, more than 250 patients from rural, regional and remote NSW communities such as Moree, Tamworth and Boggabilla have voted with their feet and hopped across the border to attend Heart of Australia clinics in Goondiwindi as well as other locations including Stanthorpe and St George. NSW residents have been able to access high quality Brisbane-based specialists through the funding from the Federal Government and generous partners. 

Moree resident Sylvia Broderick

Patients have all been referred by their GPs for specialist appointments on the Heart trucks in Queensland where the service is funded to operate. Specialities offered in these border towns are cardiology, geriatric medicine, endocrinology and gynaecology. Moree resident Sylvia Broderick’s husband Harold, 82, is a cardiology patient at the Goondiwindi clinic where he sees Professor Darren Walters. “It is much more convenient being able to travel to Goondiwindi than to get to Toowoomba or Tamworth for Harold’s cardiology care,” Mrs Sylvia Broderick said. “Travelling to Tamworth in one day would be over six hours of driving which is unsafe and stressful. Being able to go to Goondiwindi saves us time, stress and money which are all important when you live in a regional community such as Moree.” 

Heart of Australia founder Dr Rolf Gomes said he was particularly proud of the efforts of Heart of Australia medical specialists, medical aids and drivers at Goondiwindi this week, for helping the people of NSW in dire circumstances. “It is rewarding to help people from NSW in regional, rural and remote areas when they need Heart of Australia to beat the tyranny of distance and when they are living in terrible weather conditions,” Dr Rolf Gomes said. “Word is spreading in northern NSW that Heart of Australia is a reliable medical specialist service. And we don’t turn people away.” Heart of Australia has approached the Federal and NSW Governments to provide the Heart of Australia mobile medical specialist service in western NSW so that the services can be accessed by more people who live in these remote communities.

Heart 2 in Goondiwindi

HEART 5 – Bringing Radiology to the Regions

Heart of Australia was delighted to officially launch their fifth vehicle, HEART 5, at an event held Friday 11th of February at the RNA Showgrounds in Brisbane.

Heart of Australia founder, Dr Rolf Gomes, is thrilled to be working in partnership with the Queensland Government and Resources Safety and Health Queensland, which contributed $2 million towards the build and operation of HEART 5.

The aim of this partnership is to increase the accessibility of lung checks for current and former mine workers in rural and remote Queensland. The X-Ray and CT machine in this mobile unit will massively improve detection rates of mine dust lung diseases such as black lung and silicosis, where early detection and screening is critical.

Project partners Philips and I-MED worked to design and build battery technology which can withstand the bumpy Queensland roads to ensure that rural communities can be reached, and have access to the same services that are available in Brisbane.

“The battery technology we have designed and built in Queensland to power the CT scanner means with HEART 5 we can do a CT parked on a mine site, and that is a world first. Through the collaboration of the project partners, the Queensland Government, Philips and I-MED, this technology and innovation has been made possible.

“HEART 5 breaks down the tyranny of distance, so if you do have a lung disease, we can find it early and quickly,” Dr Gomes said.

Resources Minister Scott Stewart was present at the launch event, and has said “This means workers won’t have to travel as far to access highly specialised services, ensuring earlier detection and intervention in cases of mine dust lung diseases like black lung and silicosis.”

“We’re proud to have HEART 5 on the road helping to uphold our high standards for health and safety in the resources sector, and our government will continue to support workers, on and off the job site.” Minister Stewart said.

Dr Gomes said providing rural patients with access to locally delivered medical imaging services will make an enormous difference in improving lives and supporting the work of local GPs.

Since 2014, Heart of Australia’s medical specialists have seen more than 12,000 patients and saved more than 500 lives. The fleet has travelled more than 500,000 kilometres servicing towns from Stanthorpe in the south to Weipa in the far north and Winton in the west.

“With the launch of HEART 5, our CT truck, we will be finding more, treating more, and saving more lives,” Dr Gomes said.

Heart of Australia Gala 2021 Recap

Thank you to those that attended our 2021 Heart of Australia Gala evening on Saturday 18 September. For many of our guests, it was the largest event they had attended since 2019. 

Held at the Royal Brisbane International Convention Centre, the event united our patients, supporters, stakeholders, specialists and staff, who are usually separated by thousands of kilometres.

We were honoured to welcome a host of speakers on the night including Senator Susan McDonald – Special Envoy for Northern Australia, and Arrow Energy’s Vice President of Health, Safety and Environment, Michelle Zaunbrecher. They both shared their support for Heart of Australia from the perspective of their own sectors as they join us in the mission to expand our services.

Heart of Australia’s Director, Dr Rolf Gomes reflected on our rapid growth since 2014 and shared with the audience the future plans for the organisation. By working with a strong team and stakeholders, Queensland communities, from border towns such as Goondiwindi to as far north as Weipa, now have unprecedented access to specialists in their communities.

In the face of a global pandemic, cancelled national expansion plans over the past two years, a team-wide drive to create a better world has allowed Heart of Australia to rise and tackle every challenge set before us.

In his closing comments, Dr Gomes left the medical students in the audience with a message as a reminder for when they find themselves weighed down amid their careers.

“Remember why you did this. To ease suffering and help people, those feelings will help you re-focus,” he said.

“Remember Heart of Australia, the red-dust and road stretching into the horizon, the worn faces, watery eyes, broad-brimmed hats and the calloused hands which you shook. Most of all, remember you’re always welcome back should you wish to be part of this amazing Heart of Australia family, your country needs you.”

The Inaugural Above & Beyond Award

This year, Heart of Australia launched the Above & Beyond Award at the evening. This is awarded to a team member who consistently goes above and beyond what is expected to ensure that the service we deliver is of the highest standard. Dr Gomes was thrilled to award this to Operations and Scheduling Officer, Maria Abrigo.

Since 2014, Maria has been a core part of the HOA team and in her current role, works tirelessly to ensure all our specialists, drivers and medical aides arrive at their destinations ready to service the communities in a professional and efficient manner. Maria is passionate about bringing a high standard of service and care to every person that visits our trucks and HOA was excited to be able to recognise her above and beyond efforts in this way.

Sonya’s story

Watch Sonya’s story in her own words

In one of the most poignant moments of the night, one of our patients, Sonya, shared her story with the audience in a speech that touched everyone who heard it.

Living in the rural community of Cecil Plains, Sonya had a loose heart valve that went untreated for four years. She was sent to Brisbane by her GP to undergo surgery but was then told return home as her case was not deemed urgent enough for surgery. As a single working mother to an energetic daughter, Jasmine, Sonya had to hide her health struggles even though her energy levels were constantly depleted.

It wasn’t until the Heart of Australia HEART Truck visited her community and she was seen by Dr Gomes, that things changed for Sonya. After a consultation with Dr Gomes, it was obvious that Sonya’s condition did require urgent surgery and so a referral was arranged and her long-awaited surgery was fast-tracked.

“I don’t know what he put in that letter, but it’s like he put a rocket up their bum!” Sonya shared in her speech much to amusement of the audience.

Sonya’s procedure was a success and she recovered quickly- she had forgotten what it had felt like to feel so well. Her honest and raw account of her journey back to health touched everyone who heard her story.

Sonya is just one of many patients who have had their lives changed by an appointment on our HEART Trucks. As the HOA service continues to grow, we want to make sure distance will no longer affect the health of those people like Sonya who contribute so much to their own communities.

Next-Gen Medics Program– Heart of Australia, training the future

Creating a new network of doctors and allied health practitioners, with a passion for rural health, was one of the main factors leading to the launch of the HOA NextGen Medics Program in 2020.

Medical student, Grace Mitchell, and Allied Health student, Lavena Wills, both from the 2021 mid-year intake, inspired the audience with their account of how the program helped to expand their understanding and passion for rural medicine.

The gaps in rural healthcare were always apparent to Lavena. Born and raised in Yuggerah and Yugambeh country in south-east Queensland, the Program gave her the opportunity to learn about the challenges that communities in regional Qld have as she embarks on a career as an exercise physiologist.

Her time on the HEART Truck solidified her dream of working in the country and showed her what no lecture or textbook could ever teach.

“That’s the magic of this program – it takes students with an interest in rural health,” she said.

“It inspires them so it becomes their new driving passion. That it’s important, valued, fun and possible.”

For Grace, as a first-year medical student, the experience highlighted for her the challenges faced by rural and remote communities are more than what the statistics and textbook shows, but revealed core needs of these people. The experience also helped her recognise the area of medicine that she would like to focus on in her future career.

“It’s a challenge that I now see myself as part of the solution for,” she said.

Along with the original and mid-2021 cohort, all of the Next-Gen Medics Alumni have completed the program with a renewed passion and respect for country Australia.

Thank you again to those that could join us on the evening. If you couldn’t, we hope that you will in 2022!

Sonya’s Heartfelt Story Steals the Show

Heart of Australia patient Sonya Jenkins captivated the audience at the recent Heart of Australia Gala dinner with her heartfelt and authentic story.

Sonya lives in Cecil Plains, a small town about a 30-minute’s drive south of Dalby, with a population of around 400 people. She credits Heart of Australia with saving her life.

“Before Heart of Australia came into my life, I was in a very dark place.”

“All my life, I had been a hardworking woman – mainly as a house cleaner. I was proud of the work I did to help families run smoothly. I was a single mother to my beautiful daughter Jasmine, and I was incredibly proud to care for her, provide for her, and raise her. But that all changed when I got sick.”

“It started with the flu, but I just didn’t get better. I couldn’t catch my breath, I was always exhausted all the time, and I couldn’t work more than three hours at a time if that.

“When I didn’t get better, I knew something was wrong. I went to my GP in Cecils Plains. They found there was something wrong with my heart valve and said it needed to be fixed straight away. So they sent me to a cardiologist at a major Brisbane hospital.

“The cardiologist there checked me over, said I’d be fine, to go home and that it wasn’t serious… and that I’d pretty much need to have a heart attack before they’d even look at me.”

“I explained that as a single mum who needed to work and care for my daughter, it was serious to me, but they sent me home anyway.”

“I put up with it for about four years, but life was unbearable. I couldn’t hold up a vacuum cleaner, so I couldn’t work. I couldn’t help all the families whose homes I had cleaned for so long. I was really embarrassed and started hiding from people. No one knew I was sick.”

“Because I couldn’t work, I didn’t earn any income. I couldn’t provide for my daughter as an independent woman. That was a low point. Jazzy was only five at the time, but I was so sick I couldn’t give her the love, care and attention I wanted to. She actually became my carer, and she missed out on some of her childhood we can’t ever get back. She took on the parenting role, which is actually something I’m still struggling to take back from her – but that’s a different story.”

“I wanted to get better, so I kept going back to the GP, who kept sending me back to Brisbane. But the cardiologists there kept sending me home. Eventually, I stopped going. It’s a very expensive thing to head to Brisbane. I wasn’t working, and I just couldn’t afford to keep travelling to Brisbane only to be told to go home.”

“It was a very dark time. I couldn’t work; I couldn’t provide or care for my daughter. I couldn’t breathe. I had some very dark thoughts.”

“That’s when Heart of Australia and Dr Gomes came into my life.

“I was visiting my local GP, and the nurse asked me if I’d like her to see if I could visit a cardiologist on the Heart Truck. I’d never heard of it, and it didn’t normally come to Cecils Plains – it’s not on their route, but it was making a special visit. I said yes.”

“I stepped onto the Heart Truck, and I was amazed by how impressive it is. It’s just as good as any clinic I went to in Brisbane – but the people were much nicer. Dr Gomes saw me and immediately told me that something needed to be done.”

“I explained that I had tried to get it fixed and that my GP had tried, but nothing worked. Dr Gomes said he’d write the people in Brisbane a letter. I didn’t expect anything to come out of it because I was just used to the knockbacks and having to fight on the best I could as a mum. I don’t know what he put in that letter, but it was like he put a rocket up their bum.”

“I could not believe the difference it made, but now I know what’s possible when you have a leading specialist in your corner – especially when you live in a tiny country town. Everything changed, and within months, I was in surgery.

“As soon as I woke up after the operation – I knew something was different. I could breathe. It took several weeks to recover properly, but everything had changed. I could work. I could care for my daughter, and I could provide for her. These days I can even work with heavy equipment on a construction site.

“Since getting the surgery, I am me again. The darkness and all the very dark thoughts about being worthless and there being no hope for a future disappeared. And that’s why I need to tell you that Dr Gomes and Heart of Australia not only saved my heart – they truly saved my life.

“I would also like to thank Arrow Energy who, as Foundation Partner of Heart of Australia, make all of these services possible. Thank you so much!”

You can watch Sonya’s speech in full here.

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