News Archive: Aug 2020
If you’ve ever visited a Heart Truck, especially on the Southern Route, chances are you have met our Cardiac Scientist and Medical Aide, Maria Abrigo.
One of the longest-running members of the Heart of Australia crew, Maria joined the team in its very first year of operations, when it was still in start-up mode, with just one Heart Truck and three cardiologists, visiting nine towns throughout the state. She recently celebrated her fifth anniversary with the organisation.
“I remember there were many external naysayers back then. A lot of people thought the idea of bringing specialist medical services to the bush wouldn’t work. They seemed to think that if it could be done, it would have happened already,” Maria said.
“I’m sure some people thought it was risky for me to take a job for a start-up organisation trying to do something innovative in health care. If it failed, I’d be out of a job. But to me, what Dr Gomes and Heart of Australia were trying to achieve was about more than a job – it was a service to humanity.”
Growing up and living in the Philippines, Maria had first-hand experience of the frustration, pain, and loss that comes from a lack of access to vital healthcare.
“We were living in the Philippines, and I was midway through a medical degree when my dad became ill. It was impossible to access the specialist medical services we needed. There were none available. We were completely on our own.”
“It’s hard to grasp the true necessity of specialist healthcare, especially if you’ve never needed it. But when you need it, suddenly it’s life or death. No one deserves to go without.”
“My father died because of a lack of access to specialist healthcare. So I know how it feels when illness hits a family, and I know how much harder it is to manage and survive when specialist medical services aren’t readily available.”
“That’s why Heart of Australia means so much to me. I can be part of a team whose sole purpose is to bring healthcare to people who need it, in the locations where they need it.”
Having relocated to Australia, Maria first learned about Heart of Australia while in the final phases of her BioMed science degree at James Cook University.
“I was surprised to learn that there were problems accessing specialist services here in Australia, as a developed nation, but the data was compelling. Australians living rurally are twice as likely to die from heart disease as their city counterparts. Dr Gomes felt allowing that to continue wasn’t an option, and he was determined to do something about it. I wanted to be a part of that.”
Maria said one of the greatest rewards of the role is seeing the impact it has on people’s lives first-hand.
“There’s the numbers, of course. Like, since we began, we’ve saved over 350 lives. That’s amazing. But I’ve learned that when you’re out on the truck, day in and day out, data like this is not about numbers on a page. That’s 350 Australians we’ve saved; people with families, friends, businesses, farms and a whole lot of people that couldn’t imagine life without them.
“And these people and their loved ones walk up the stairs and onto the trucks for post-operative follow-ups and check-ups. Their smiles, and the simple fact they are there is a reminder of the importance of the work we are doing.”
Maria said there is also a special kind of joy that comes from meeting and caring for rural Australians.
“Working in healthcare, you often have to spend time with people who might be having their worst days, as they receive bad or challenging news, or are struggling to manage their health. It can often bring out the worst in people, but I’ve not seen any of that in the patients we see.”
“In my experience, rural Australians are just different. Out here, even on their most challenging days, there’s always a smile. They want to talk about their dog, their property, or how beautiful the stars were last night. They have a completely different attitude to life. People out here don’t let their sickness define them.”
“They’re just inspiring. The highlight of my work with Heart of Australia is engaging with the patients. A very close second is the experience of being on the road – which is hard to beat.
“It’s not like working in a city clinic. Every day is an adventure, and it’s the adventure that I love. Every day when you wake up, we have a plan, but working in a mobile clinic in the bush is never simple. There will be unexpected hurdles we have to jump to get the Heart Truck where it needs to be, to be open and ready for clinics. We also do everything we can to be responsive to the challenges our patients face, which change from day to day based on the weather, the roads, issues on their farms or properties and more.
That’s what keeps me excited about the next day – you just never know what could happen, and what solution we’ll need to come up with.
Maria said the Heart of Australia team had become family to her.
“I’m not from Australia, so for me, my team has become my family. When I joined, there were only four staff members. But Heart of Australia is growing, and the team is the best it has ever been. We have so many wonderful minds, all working together for a common goal. To make healthcare equitable, no matter the postcode. And every day we’re getting that little bit closer.
“Spending the last five years with Heart of Australia has been a privilege. I have seen it change from a dream to a reality. I have seen it grow and evolve – expanding the range of services we offer and the number of towns we visit. I’ve worked with amazing people and met inspiring and lovely patients. I’ve been all over rural Queensland, and I’ve seen some truly beautiful country.
“Most importantly of all, this job is my way of giving back and helping people who need it. It’s my way of honouring my father, using what I’ve learned and experienced to support patients and give them what they need while working as part of a team dedicated to ensuring that everyone can access the specialist medical care they need and deserve.”
This month Heart of Australia celebrated the milestone of delivering 1500 clinics to Queensland’s rural, regional and remote communities.
Since operations commenced in 2014, Heart of Australia has delivered over 1500 clinics, seen over 8000 patients and helped to save over 350 lives.
To recognise this exciting milestone, Dr Gomes met up with patient Anthony (Tony) Beattie and his wife Carolyn. Tony’s check up with Dr Gomes in Dalby three months ago resulted in life-saving open-heart surgery, from which he is now recovering.
Dr Gomes said Tony’s story is a reminder of the life-saving impact the service delivers.
“The individual stories like Tony’s are what makes Heart of Australia so special and highlights how we can mobilise medicine for those in rural, regional and remote areas of Australia,” said Dr Gomes.
“What started as a dream, supported by a small band of people who took a chance in 2014, has flourished into a model of mobile medical service delivery that is demonstrated to perform, and is ready to scale.”
“We measure our impact in terms of lives saved, and the quality of the lives improved. It gives our team so much pleasure to see the progress made by returning patients, knowing our intervention has helped that person’s quality of life.”
Read more about Tony’s story here (hyperlink to feature story).
Dr Gomes created Heart of Australia’s concept in response to his time as a junior doctor in rural Queensland, where specialist medical services were almost non-existent.
“I saw people who either had to travel hundreds of kilometres on their GP’s recommendation for a specialist diagnosis or trust to luck that nothing was seriously wrong with them,” Dr Gomes said.
“This option is one of the core reasons that country people have a higher rate of death than their city counterparts, and it drove me to think about what I could do to address this inequity.”
Tony’s wife Carolyn understands the impact Heart of Australia’s service has in the lives of rural and regional Queenslanders, and their loved ones.
“A reminder call from Heart of Australia prompted Anthony to get a 2-yearly check up on the Heart Truck. During the check-up Dr Gomes detected a significant cardiac issue that resulted in Tony undergoing an emergency triple bypass,” Carolyn said.
“If it wasn’t for this wonderful service, we could quite easily have lost him.”
In 2014 Dr Gomes outlined his plan for a mobile specialist service to Arrow Energy, which signed on as foundation partner to transform Heart of Australia into reality. Arrow Energy CEO Cecile Wake was one of the people in Dalby to celebrate the 1500th clinic milestone.
“I offer my heartiest congratulations to Dr Gomes and the Heart of Australia team,” said Arrow Energy CEO Cecile Wake.
“With permanent groups of staff in Dalby and Moranbah, Arrow understood the value of Dr Gomes’ idea right from the start. We know our country staff should have the same level of care as our Brisbane staff, and this goes for the wider community as well.
“Helping to create Heart of Australia stands as a great achievement in our company’s history. It gives me great satisfaction to see it going from strength to strength, for the benefit of country Queenslanders.”
The journey to this 1500th clinic milestone has seen many advances and expansions to the services offered.
“Our first clinics offered mobile cardiology and respiratory medicine services. We quickly confirmed that our model for mobilising specialist services worked, and expanded the range of specialist services available at our clinics. Additional speciality services now available include endocrinology, gastroenterology, gynaecology, neurology, psychology, geriatrics, and sleep medicine,” Dr Gomes said.
“We have developed and delivered a model of mobile medicine that works for rural, regional and remote communities. We’ve made a significant difference in the lives of the communities we have served with our first 1500 clinics. We’re excited to see what we can achieve with the next 1500.”