In February 2020 Dr Nicole Townsend (BMBS(Grad Entry) ’10) and her colleague opened a small GP clinic in Bendigo, two hours north of Melbourne. The practice had only been open for three weeks when COVID hit.
“When March and April came and COVID was in Australia, we built a wall in our clinic to separate out the respiratory patients. In the first two weeks we used all the equipment that we had purchased and by that stage there were no commercial supplies available.”
“In Victoria primary health networks distributed quite a few masks but at no point did anyone think about the requirements for gowns,” says Nicole, who had an idea that they could probably make the gowns themselves.
They found a pattern and made some for their clinic. Realising it was a feasible idea to scale up locally, they approached the local radio station and who asked for 100 volunteers to each make 10 gowns to produce 1,000 gowns for our community. They also engaged a manufacturer of medical grade linen in Melbourne to assist.
“We set up a GoFundMe page and raised over $50,000 from the community – including donations from the Rural Doctors Association and the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, and medical benevolent funds.”
Their goal was to get a box of 100 washable reusable cotton gowns out to all the GP clinics in rural and regional Victoria. With the help of a local transport company – who delivered free of charge – they reached their goal of delivering a box of gowns to more than 400 rural and regional GP clinics in Victoria.
After the first wave of the virus subsided, they continued to supply gowns as needed, all via informal networks and social media. During Victoria’s second coronavirus wave they supplied several practices in Melbourne until demand subsided.
The biggest lessons from this project were about innovation, speed and agility in decision-making.
“It’s about recognising that sometimes the smallest idea can actually create an enormous impact,” says Nicole.
“We were lucky enough that we could do things quickly because it was just the two of us. And we were able to harness an enormous amount of resources and community support to achieve this fantastic outcome.”
A country childhood and a long-held interest in studying medicine led Nicole to study postgraduate medicine at Flinders University in her 30s. She had worked in the IT industry in Melbourne for 12 years but dreamt of returning to live in the country to raise her family.
“One of the reasons I chose to go to Flinders was because I wanted to do the Parallel Rural Community Curriculum,” says Nicole, who spent her third year as a medical student in Renmark through the rural training program – now known as the Doctor of Medicine Rural Stream. “The challenge of getting doctors to rural areas, is a perennial problem. And I believe one of the biggest ways that we can be tackled is by harnessing people who actually want to live in the country.”
Nicole enjoyed her time at Flinders and recalls the approachability of all of the lecturers and academics.
“It just never felt like being at university because the medical school is in the hospital and we were on the wards within those first few weeks of starting,” says Nicole. “In the postgraduate medicine group we had such a diverse range of people including a paramedic, a lawyer, a physio and a chemical engineer.”
“It was the only university that would accept me into Medicine because I’d been in the workforce for 10 years and hadn’t studied recently. Flinders took an open approach, acknowledging that people can bring valuable life experience to their practice. It broke down barriers, allowing people like me to achieve.”