Clinical experience and cultural education in Nhulunbuy

Northern Territory Medical Program (NTMP) student Jess Coolwell has recently completed a placement in Nhulunbuy, almost 5 months after making the 1000km journey from Darwin with her husband, to embark on an adventure in East Arnhem Land.

Jess was able to benefit from the slower pace and higher doctor-to-student ratios for her first clinical placement, while enjoying beautiful accommodation and a chance to explore a small corner of stunning East Arnhem Land.

The cultural experience was a highlight for Jess, despite being dampened a little by COVID-19 travel restrictions. She received an unexpected invitation to witness part of a funeral ceremony in a local community, with the family even finding time to show her their freshly caught turtles in the midst of their grief and cultural obligations. She was taken aback by how they saw her visit not as an intrusion, but as a respectful interest in their culture and late family member.

It is not uncommon in Nhulunbuy for there to be traditional ceremonies right outside (and sometimes inside) the hospital doors as part of the mourning of a patient’s passing. ‘You can often hear clapsticks and singing echoing to the other side of the building and the town is full of people with white clay on their faces as a mark of mourning and respect’, explains Jess. ‘I’ve been touched by the way the hospital staff make provisions for cultural requirements and endless cups of tea and biscuits for mourning family members’.

Jess was able to take language and culture classes, and local Yolŋu people were patient and accommodating, with many being happy to teach some language in between examinations. ‘I had a patient whose priority was making sure I was putting Yolŋu words in a sentence, never mind that he was being investigated for chest pain’, Jess says.

Jess learned a lot from the intersection of a Western medical system which sits alongside a strong traditional culture. One of her most poignant experiences was attending home visits with an elderly man as part of his rehabilitation from injury, walking along beach and hearing stories of black magic and supernatural events.

That same patient’s community is also home to a football club which has long hosted visiting medical students, interns and a few permanent hospital staff members who play and train alongside the Yolŋu men and women in the local footy league. ‘It was surreal to participate in a sport I’ve been playing for more than a decade, but not be able to understand more than a few words the entire session’, says Jess.

‘One of the greatest things about this experience has been sharing it with my husband. We have been able to truly appreciate what it could be like living and working in a remote community in the future’, she says.

I’m so thankful to all the amazing clinical and administrative staff at Flinders NT Nhulunbuy Campus and Gove District Hospital who’ve provided such rich academic, practical and cultural experiences for me, as well as all the Yolŋu people who have been so tolerant of my ignorance! Thank you, Nhulunbuy, marrkapmi!

Hunting with his family – Photo courtesy Deon Mununggurr, local Nhulunbuy resident
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