It’s more than a job – it’s a service to humanity

Posted on 25th August 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.”