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Celebrating the life of NP Cathy Woods

4 Apr 2022

Michelle Dowden recalls her wonderful Galiwin’ku Island colleague, Cathy Woods, who passed away in 2021 but who lives on in treasured memories of distributing ice-cream on Boxing Day and 3am debriefs after airstrip retrievals.

1 Cathy left and Michelle right

Cathy and Michelle

A movie fea­tur­ing Nurse Prac­ti­tion­er Cathy Woods liv­ing and work­ing in remote com­mu­ni­ties in Arn­hem Land in the North­ern Ter­ri­to­ry would por­tray her as an out­stand­ing human being who made things hap­pen, saved lives and gave self­less­ly to all”.

Michelle Dow­den, who was man­ag­er of the clin­ic on Galiwin’ku Island when Cathy arrived there in 2008, says the movie would also be a sure-fire block­buster, com­plete with love, romance, heartache, adven­tures, and twists.

Cathy would have seen her­self as a mod­est remote nurse who things hap­pened to,” says Michelle.

In fact, she had clin­i­cal skills that could have matched the best med­ical spe­cial­ist, her atten­tion to detail in the kids clin­ic was noth­ing but out­stand­ing and she was much loved by all Yol­ngu [peo­ple].”

Cathy died, aged 40, from liv­er can­cer at the end of last year.

She des­per­ate­ly want­ed to get back to her beloved Arn­hem Land,” says Michelle. Sad­ly this did not hap­pen, but I can tell you for sure Arn­hem Land nev­er left Cathy.

Short­ly before she died, we rec­ol­lect­ed spe­cial times, many involv­ing the airstrip, often at 3am after a long and com­pli­cat­ed evac­u­a­tion, per­haps involv­ing a heart attack, seri­ous infec­tion or major trau­ma.

The joy of see­ing the plane take off and then us drop­ping all the Yol­ngu fam­i­ly mem­bers back home in the ambu­lance and final­ly hav­ing that well-earned cof­fee and a debrief that no-one oth­er than a remote area nurse can appreciate.

In our time togeth­er in Galiwin’ku, we shared many, many times, we shed tears and had lots and lots of laughs.”

Tire­less work­days dri­ving around to deliv­er med­ica­tions and make house­hold vis­its, and joy­ous down­time sim­ply cook­ing damper in the coals and hav­ing a cup of tea, walk­ing in the cycad bush – that was the life that Cathy cherished.

One anec­dote revolves around Christmas.

It was Box­ing Day and we both realised we had missed Christ­mas because it had been so busy at the clin­ic,” says Michelle. So we drove around the whole com­mu­ni­ty giv­ing out the ice­cream from the freezer.

We would often reflect after a big day how much can hap­pen. A birth, a death, a cranky client, a fun­ny client, 20 flat tyres, a huge storm, a pow­er out­age, all in a day’s work and then up all night for call.”

2 Cathy and Michelle at Sydney Harbour Bridge

Cathy and Michelle at Syd­ney Har­bour Bridge.

Cathy, who trained at Deakin Uni­ver­si­ty and worked at St Vincent’s Hos­pi­tal in Mel­bourne where she orig­i­nal­ly came from, first went to Galiwin’ku around 2004 after her nurs­ing training.

She returned in 2008 and stayed until 2015, and then worked in Milingim­bi for a cou­ple of years before her diag­no­sis in 2018. All in all, more than 10 years work­ing remote with Miwatj Abo­rig­i­nal Health.

Like many non-Indige­nous peo­ple who go to live and work in East Arn­hem Land, Cathy was adopt­ed into a fam­i­ly; a big part of her sto­ry, says Michelle. She always held the view that she lived, loved and worked with Yol­ngu. This meant an open house and an open heart.

The adop­tion sys­tem is best described as a nec­es­sary require­ment to place you in the com­plex sys­tem that is the Yol­ngu world,” says Michelle. Each rock, tree, ani­mal and place is sig­nif­i­cant and has a rela­tion­ship to you and those in your clan. Cathy under­stood this sys­tem.

We lived in adjoin­ing hous­es, ele­vat­ed, lou­vred with ceil­ing fans and mas­sive fra­grant frangi­pani trees which pro­vid­ed glo­ri­ous canopies out­side, and we reg­u­lar­ly popped over to each other’s places to share a gin­ger beer, count­less cup­pas and many meals.

Cathy was a ded­i­cat­ed remote area nurse, says Michelle, and proud to become a Nurse Prac­ti­tion­er, com­ing top in her year.

She was instru­men­tal in the fol­low-up of a group of chil­dren with a rare heart anom­aly and helped many a researcher with field­work over the years.

Her pro­fes­sion­al ded­i­ca­tion was no more appar­ent,” says Michelle, than in her deter­mi­na­tion to attend pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment to main­tain reg­is­tra­tion up until a year before she died.”

In mem­o­ry of Cathy, Michelle has had a star named in her hon­our: Wur­ru­pa (ocean woman) because she so deserves to be seen shin­ing every night some­where”, Michelle says of her dear­est friend.