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Meet 2021 Excellence in Remote and Isolated Health Practice Award Winner, Helen Parker

3 Dec 2021

Child Health Nurse with Mala'la Health Service, Helen Parker, has worked in Kenya, Saudi Arabia, and widely through the Top End. She reflects on becoming a nurse practitioner, a RAN's wide scope of practice, and the importance of holistic care.

The 2021 Excel­lence in Remote & Iso­lat­ed Health Prac­tice Award is spon­sored by James Cook University/​Murtupuni Cen­tre for Rur­al & Remote Health

When Remote Area Nurse and Nurse Prac­ti­tion­er Helen Park­er received the phone call to say that she had tak­en out this award, she was in Man­ingri­da, where she works as a Child Health Nurse with the Mala’la Health Service.

Upon hear­ing the news, she says I was over­whelmed, I start­ed cry­ing… I felt real­ly hon­oured and proud of myself.”

For Ms Park­er, a place­ment in Cher­bourg, under-tak­en dur­ing her stud­ies at QUT in Bris­bane, gave rise to a pas­sion that would last a lifetime.

It gave me a brief expe­ri­ence of work­ing in an Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ty,” she says. For me, I knew I need­ed to get five to six years of expe­ri­ence before I could go out bush… I thought, one day I’m going to do this.”

Her tran­si­tion to remote began with a few years work­ing out of Alice Springs on the two-year path­way in place back then.

In 2003, she lived in Sau­di Ara­bia for three years where she worked as a nurse with the assis­tance of a trans­la­tor – an expe­ri­ence which she has writ­ten a book about, called Through My Eyes.

After a stint back Down Under, Ms Park­er then worked for Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders at an emer­gency mis­sion in Loc­ki­chog­gio, Kenya.

Since return­ing to Aus­tralia, she has worked pre­dom­i­nant­ly in remote loca­tions in the Top End.

Becom­ing a nurse practitioner

Ms Park­er became a Nurse Prac­ti­tion­er while work­ing remote and is endorsed as a gen­er­al­ist, an achieve­ment which wasn’t easy” but which she is proud of hav­ing under­tak­en. How­ev­er, she is eager to acknowl­edge the wide scope of prac­tice faced by many RANs.

There’s a lot of RANs out there who are func­tion­ing as nurse prac­ti­tion­ers,” she says. The expand­ed scope of prac­tice that most of them are work­ing under – it real­ly is unbelievable.”

Though Ms Park­er has worked as a Nurse Prac­ti­tion­er at mul­ti­ple points of time, includ­ing with­in the Queens­land min­ing indus­try, she says for her it still wasn’t the same as work­ing up here in the NT… I was always going to come back. You can do so much more out in the bush.”

It’s what you get used to”

Ms Park­er recalls one of her first mem­o­ries of work­ing remote in Yuendumu.

I went out­side my house and all these chil­dren swarmed around me – because I’m real­ly pale and I had blonde hair – and touched me all over my skin. When you’re not used to that, that’s quite con­fronting. I remem­ber think­ing, Oh, I’m so over­whelmed, all these kids all around me.’ They’re just real­ly friend­ly. That was a strong mem­o­ry from the beginning.”

Over her 15 years, Ms Park­er has grown accus­tomed to the unique expe­ri­ences of work­ing in a remote envi­ron­ment and miss­es them when she steps away.

When I worked in Cen­tral and Kather­ine, in those com­mu­ni­ties, a lot of peo­ple speak Cre­ole, plus their oth­er lan­guages,” she says.

In Man­ingri­da, there’s sev­en to eight lan­guages and none of them sound like each oth­er. Over time you might pick up some com­mon words, just lit­tle ones. You hear all of this [unfa­mil­iar lan­guage] going on around you… It’s just nor­mal for me.

When I went back to Hobart for a while, it just felt like something’s not right’. I had a lot of trou­ble try­ing to assim­i­late back into it – and I nev­er real­ly did. It’s what you get used to, and it becomes normal.”

Pro­vid­ing holis­tic pri­ma­ry health care

Ms Parker’s present place of work, the Mala’la Health Ser­vice, has recent­ly tran­si­tioned from Ter­ri­to­ry Gov­ern­ment con­trol to be run by Abo­rig­i­nal Med­ical Ser­vices. The tran­si­tion has brought about a grow­ing focus on pri­ma­ry health care, a long­stand­ing pas­sion of Ms Parker’s.

To get some prop­er head­way or improve­ments in health, it’s a lot more besides antibi­otics and putting a band-aid on,” she says. It’s about tak­ing on the fam­i­ly, the cul­ture, the lan­guages, the way you speak… to be able to give that holis­tic care.

I’m see­ing chil­dren now, but par­ents can come in. I’m doing all that: fam­i­ly dynam­ics and ask­ing who’s doing this, who’s doing that. If the grand­par­ents are well and the par­ents are well, the child’s going to be well.

It’s going that step fur­ther, using the yarn­ing tool. The con­sults aren’t 10 min­utes. They’re as long as what they need to be.”

Do you know some­one whose achieve­ments deserve to be cel­e­brat­ed? Nom­i­nate them for a CRANAplus Award when appli­ca­tions open.