Nurses terrorised in outback Australia

Nurses terrorised at nursing posts in remote areas of Australia will never forget their experiences. The recent murder of Remote Area Nurse Gayle Woodford will have reactivated many memories.

Map showing APY Lands in South Australia

Map showing APY Lands in South Australia

Gayle worked in the remote community of Fregon in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in South Australia. She lived with her husband. Her nursing post was not a single-nurse post.

Gayle Woodford. (image The Australian)

Gayle Woodford.
(image The Australian)

Many Remote Area Nurses terrorised in the past will have their own stories. The stories and communities are not confined to any one Australian State or Territory.

Perhaps times have changed. A little. Now, so I hear, nurses in South Australia do not occupy single nurse posts. But they still expect to attend after-hours call-outs alone.

Years ago, I visited the Klong Toey slums in Bangkok with my sister, Elizabeth. On return to Perth, I was full of what I can now describe as missionary zeal. (There used to be a joke. The people who work on remote Aboriginal communities are missionaries, mercenaries and misfits.)

Thailand was too far away. So I went to a nursing post at Jigalong in the Pilbara region of North Western Australia. I hoped to change the world. There were supposed to be two nurses. But for various reasons, I was alone for most of the time I was there.

The photos were taken before I was told that the by-laws stated I could be run out of town if I had a camera!

Nursing post when I worked at Jigalong

Nursing post when I worked at Jigalong

I lived alone and unprotected in the flimsy flat on the right.

I lived alone and unprotected in the flimsy flat on the right.

Settlement of Jigalong where around 350-400 people lived.

Settlement of Jigalong where around 350-400 people lived.

The Aboriginal people accepted me. Some befriended me. They taught me many skills.  I am grateful for the times we spent together. My experience as an RAN enriched my life.

Sadly, my own life was endangered by a tiny cohort of fringe members of the community, three times in the space of a few months.

I heard stories of nurses terrorised in the Kimberly, further North. Two religious sisters, working together as Remote Area Nurses, were threatened with death. The story filtered down the grapevine was unclear. But those women fled for their lives. They drove to the nearest town and never went back.

A nursing colleague who had worked for seventeen years in one place was run out of town by angry relatives of a boy who had died. She was in no way responsible. She was white. She was a nurse. She was there.

A young teacher in the community where I lived was sexually assaulted.

Years later, I wrote a book about the good and bad of my experience. It is an adventure story. It is history. It is memoir.

Other People’s Country was a finalist for the Best Non Fiction Book in the Walkley Awards for Journalism (2008). It was also a finalist for the WA Premier’s History Prize.

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6 thoughts on “Nurses terrorised in outback Australia

  1. A strong piece, Maureen. Your story continues to be told, in different ways. Your voice speaks up for other nurses who have been or are expected to risk their lives, their safety and health without adequate support, hoping to make a difference.

    • Thanks, Christina. Yes, I guess we have a duty of some sort to continue to tell stories that might help others understand social issues (and social evils) we encounter in our lives. I don’t think there is ever a use-by date for experience.

  2. I will never forget being SO worried about my friend in Jigalong!! So glad you’ve lived to tell some of the story!! Rosie

    • It certainly was very hairy some of the time. Thank goodness I could occasionally call you and talk about my situation. I’m kind of glad I lived to tell the tale, too.

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