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Celebrating the life of NP Cathy Woods
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.
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.”
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.