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.
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 of Australia was delighted to officially launch their fifth vehicle, HEART 5, at an event held Friday 11 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.
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.
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!
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!”
NextGen Medics student alumni Lavena Wills has always dreamed of going rural when she graduates with her degree in Exercise Physiology. But she didn’t know the mechanics of making it happen or what practising allied health in rural and remote communities might look like.
Then she was accepted into Heart of Australia’s NextGen Medics student experience program.
Lavena is a proud Bigambul, Ewamian and Kukatji woman. Born and raised in Yuggera and having spent many years growing up in Wakka Wakka (Queensland), Lavena already understood the joys and the challenges of living in rural, regional and remote Australia – including the challenge of accessing health care. She hoped the NextGen Medics program would enhance that understanding by showing her what it’s like practice healthcare delivery in similar communities.
“I was hoping to see what it was like to experience medicine out in the country, in the remote and rural communities, and that’s exactly what I learned, and so much more. It was a real learning journey.
“To start with, I was completely surprised by the Heart Trucks. I had no idea how sophisticated they were, the impressive amount of medical equipment and supplies onboard or how many services the doctors, specialists, and health workers could do on the truck.
“I was surprised by how appreciative the country patients are for the health care they receive. They’re so happy and so thankful that they don’t have to travel to a big city to access the health services they need. It shocked me just how thankful they are, especially in contrast to people in the city – if I run out of medication at home, I’m annoyed at having to drive five minutes away to my GP to get a new prescription. Some people out here would kill to have that problem. It really changes your perspective. You can read about health inequality for people living in rural and remote communities in your uni classes, but you don’t truly understand it until you see it first-hand.
“The Heart Trucks play an important part in fighting that inequity. You talk to people out here, and they’ll tell you – many will put off their healthcare needs unless a truck comes into a town close to them. I say ‘close’, but I’ve spoken to patients who have happily driven over 100km to come to their appointment on the truck. They’re willing and able to drive 100kms, which they can do in a day. That change in the distance makes all the difference – and not having to find the time and money for flights, long drives, accommodation and someone to look after their homes, family and responsibilities. Having spoken to people out west, they’ve told me that many of them wouldn’t or couldn’t make that big trip. They’d stay home, not get the healthcare they need, and leave it until it’s way too late – which is not good. It’s very dangerous.”
When asked to list her highlights from the program, Lavena said there were too many to mention. However, when we insisted, she managed to pick her favourite moments.
“To start with, it’s way more hands-on than I thought it would be. I thought it would be more shadowing and watching, but the program pushes you straight into the deep end, which is really good – being hands-on with patients and putting your uni skills to work in a unique mobile setting. “Then there’s the Theodore Medical Centre. The way they engage with and incorporate Indigenous healthcare into their practice is absolutely amazing. There’s still a long way to go for health equity for Indigenous patients and communities throughout Australia, but the steps Theodore Medical has taken is impressive and inspiring.
“Our visit to Emerald Hospital was also eye-opening. I love how the medical team appreciate the value of Allied Health, take a holistic approach, and work as a whole team side by side with the Allied Health professionals. They have the whole team speak to the patient together, so the patient only needs to tell their story once, rather than retelling it over and over again each time a new doctor or healthcare worker arrives. It was a really great example of how they are all about putting their patients first. I loved that.
When asked how important the NextGen Medics program is to the future of rural and regional healthcare, Lavena was very clear.
“The NextGen Medics program is already doing incredible things to help get doctors and allied health professionals to go rural.”
“It’s so important students get to come and experience not just one rural community, but many – so they can find the right one for them. I think Anne Chater from the Theodore Medical Centre explained it really well. She said to us, “when you’ve seen one rural town, you’ve seen one rural town – you have not seen them all” – which is exactly right.
“Every town has its pros and cons. And when you get to visit several of them, see them in action and understand them, you can find the right match with what you want in a home and work life in the future as a rural health professional. If one community is not for you, there’s definitely another community that will be the right fit.
“Australia needs more doctors and health workers in rural and remote communities. NextGen Medics is playing a crucial in encouraging students to go rural in their future.
“It’s motivated me so much. You make connections with doctors and specialists, health workers and patients, and they inspire you. They make you want to hurry up and finish your degree so you can get out there as soon as possible to help address the health gap in the rural communities.
“I always knew that I wanted to go rural, but by the end of the first Block, any nagging doubts I had were gone – I’m definitely going rural as soon as I can.