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Alice Springs nurse earns top award for bringing dialysis to remote communities

Photo: HESTA
Having grown up in the regional town of Maryborough in Queensland, nurse Sarah Brown was never drawn to life in the big cities.

On the contrary - having developed a passion for community nursing, Ms Brown’s career quickly took her to remote Northern Territory, where her years long dedication to the region’s aboriginal communities, lead to her being named Nurse or Midwife of the Year in the 2017 HESTA Australian Nursing & Midwifery Awards.

Her passion for nursing goes back to when Ms Brown was just a young girl.

“When I was about 12 I started visiting a nursing home on Saturday mornings and got a bit obsessed with death and dying and good nursing care,” she says.

“When I finished school I studied nursing in Armidale NSW and Sociology, Cross cultural communications, Primary Health Care and Indigenous health were the subjects that floated my boat.”
After graduating, Ms Brown completed her first year at St Vincent’s hospital in Darlinghurst - her first stint living in the big smoke.

“After St Vinnies I moved to Adelaide and got a fantastic job working as a community nurse in the Aboriginal Medical Service - I thought all my Christmases had come at once.”

With so much of her study focused on what was happening in the Northern Territory, Ms Brown decided to apply for a job teaching Aboriginal Health Workers based in Alice in order to experience life in the community first-hand.

“This gave me the chance to visit remote communities for the first time and I fell in love!

“Not long after I became a remote nurse and lived and worked in remote communities in the desert, the Top End and on Cape Barren Island in the Bass Strait for about 10 years all up. My partner and I had 3 kids along the way, so life was definitely full and challenging.

While Ms Brown has worked in large teams, much of her experience as a remote nurse has been as the only nurse at the clinic.

And although living in remote regions does pose challenges, Ms Brown said she loves the pace of community life.

“I love the opportunity to be part of people’s lives and to help them make their communities a healthier place to be.

“I guess there are a few more logistics to consider - you can't pop down to the corner shop for some milk at 6 pm, it certainly made me value fresh fruit and vegetables and a newspaper on the day it was printed when I came to town!”

Whilst working in the remote towns of the Northern Territory, Ms Brown felt a particular pull towards the region’s aboriginal communities.

“No two Aboriginal communities are the same,” says Ms Brown.

“All have different cultural differences, languages and histories.
“There is a lot of poverty and ill health in remote communities, but there are also a lot of strengths, such as looking after family and country, teaching their children and grandchildren.

“They are people who have mountains of compassion and love despite really hard lives.

“I have learnt what is important in life is not how much money you earn or what sort of car you drive but how you treat the people around you and the friendships you make.”

It was Ms Brown’s association with the Pintupi people from the Western Desert, with whom she launched The Purple House, that lead to the project that would earn her her recent award.

“The Pintupi people wanted to get a dialysis machine in Kintore so they could get their family members home to country and look after them themselves.

“Dialysis is usually 3 days a week, so if you are from a remote community you really had to move to Alice Springs as there was no dialysis out bush at the time.

“So they had an auction at the Art gallery of NSW and raised a million dollars! They knew what they wanted to do, but they had to work out how they were going to do it.”

Ms Brown began helping the ‘kidney committee’ in 2003 to set up the organisation and to make plans.

“The Purple house is our base in Alice Springs and it’s a real hub of activity - people coming for dialysis, to see a nurse or to ring their family.

“There’s a kitchen and a fire pit, a bush medicine making social enterprise, a garden with chickens and a pizza oven!

“We started with one machine in Alice and one machine in Kintore and we’ve grown to 11 remote communities in the NT and WA with plans for more in the next year. Our aims are to get people home to country and help them have a good life.”

Ms Brown says rates of kidney disease are much higher in remote communities, which is causing immense hardship across remote Australia.

“There are many more people on dialysis now than 15 years ago, but we also got 157 people back home to their communities in the last twelve months,” Ms Brown says.

“People are living longer and are able to continue living in their own homes, with their families, working in their communities rather than being health refugees. There’s hope now and great pride.

The organisation also launched The Purple Truck, a mobile dialysis unit.

“It can go to the places we still haven’t got dialysis and give people an opportunity to get out of the city and home for a few weeks.

While Ms Brown and her team are working on building some new dialysis units in the NT and in South Australia, there are still many communities without access to dialysis.

“We get some money from the government but we still do lots of fundraising, art sales, all sorts of things and communities support us where they can.

“Hopefully one day there won’t be as many people who need dialysis because kidney disease is really a disease of poverty, dispossession and powerlessness.

“The Purple House story is really a story of communities working really hard to make things better for themselves and their families.

“I think remote communities have got a lot to teach the rest of us about determination and survival.”

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Nicole Madigan

Nicole Madigan is a widely published journalist with more than 15 years experience in the media and communications industries.

Specialising in health, business, property and finance, Nicole writes regularly for numerous high-profile newspapers, magazines and online publications.

Before moving into freelance writing almost a decade ago, Nicole was an on-air reporter with Channel Nine and a newspaper journalist with News Limited.

Nicole is also the Director of content and communications agency Stella Communications (www.stellacomms.com) and a children's author.