Dr Katrina Starmer and some members of the Chillagoe community

THE GIFT OF TIME: The profound effect a community had on their local GP

Date published

19 Jan 2021

There’s a lot of marble in Chillagoe. So much of it that small marble gemstones actually lay scattered on the side of the dirt road as you drive from the airstrip to the little white Queenslander that is the town’s 100-year-old hospital.

Around the small town there are pockets of open-cut earth with stark white cubes of marble the size of family cars stacked high in the sun. There was a mining boom here back in the 1900s but the value in this town is not in the ground - it’s in the people I was lucky enough to meet in 2020 as a Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) GP trainee.

I took a year off emergency retrievals last year to train in rural and remote medicine with the RFDS. With a team of nurses, we flew to Chillagoe every Monday to perform primary health care, which involved everything from cutting out skin cancers, to medical tests for driver licences and childhood vaccinations. It was my first experience as a GP, and it certainly was a change of pace. In retrieval, the priority is to get people to ‘the right place in the right time’ which ideally is as quickly as practicable. The fact is, in an emergency there isn’t a great deal of time to find out much more about people than why they are in hospital. I used to joke that as I was an Emergency Medicine Specialist I didn’t know how to look after people for more than 24 hours anyway! But it took me a year to completely change my paradigm and realise that in rural GP, time was not my enemy, but my friend.

Tommy and Katrina in his 1946 sapphire blue Ford Deluxe Utility

Early in the year I met Tommy of the Tom Prior Historic Ford Museum. Tommy’s collection of vintage Fords is visited by hundreds of tourists in Chillagoe each year. His ‘runaround’ is a 1946 sapphire blue Ford Deluxe Utility and it would roll into the hospital yard whenever he had an appointment. After I completed his medical assessment, he invited me to take a drive with him around the town. It was my lunch break so I thought ‘Why not? I’ve just determined him safe enough to drive after all’! We had a ball cruising main street together with the wind in our hair (no aircon in that old classic)! It was just 10 minutes out of my day but a very happy memory for the both of us.

Dr Katrina Starmer with members of the Chillagoe Community

I met Mary who despite being in her golden years had restored the old town courthouse into a museum, frozen in time for tourists to enjoy. At one stage we had to send Mary 300km away to Cairns for a procedure. When she turned up at Cairns Emergency, where I happened to be working the very next day, she exclaimed with delight “this is great service - you followed me here”! I had to admit to her that it was just a coincidence, but she deserved the special treatment! Steve, a local cattle grazier, graded the dirt roads of his property so people could drive out and camp by the Walsh River. I lost my gold earring swimming in that river and Steve recently joked that over the last 100 years plenty of gold has been taken from Chillagoe and I’m probably the only person that has given some back (not intentionally mind you)!

Other local characters included Anna and Cheryl who baked scones and slice for smoko and brought them to us, still warm from the oven, to enjoy on the wide hospital verandah. The resident peacock and bower bird in the hospital yard always enjoyed our crumbs! The remote clinic staff Megan, Wendy and Fay work there year-round – reminding everyone in town when they are due for tests and scripts like the ultimate time-keepers. Each person in town is like a gemstone embedded in the community, keeping it ticking along.

Slyvia standing with her 1954 Series 1 Land Rover

And then there was Sylvia. With silver hair swept into a glamorous up-do, she is the town’s librarian. She turned up to her appointment one day driving her 1954 Series 1 Land Rover, resplendent in her red driving scarf. I asked her if I could take the time to photograph her and she laughed, remarking “why on earth would you want to do that?”. I don’t think she realised how much she looked like a movie star. This week she came to the clinic to present me a gift from the community – a Chillagoe marble clock. I was struck by the symbolism. The marble was beautiful yes, but the fact that it was a clock was ironic. Working as a GP in the community of Chillagoe has taught me the value of taking the time to really get to know my patients. And for that I am eternally grateful.

Written by RFDS (Queensland Section) Medical Officer and GP trainee Dr Katrina Starmer.