The University of Notre Dame’s Kimberley Remote Area Health Placement program for second year medical students, which has been going since 2006, is known for its transformative effect on students and young doctors in their career choices, with many choosing rural and remote practice.

It is also turning out some pretty accomplished artists!

Medicine students Kelly Bell, James Dodd, Ruth Smit and Peter Li with Professors Gervase Chaney and Donna Mak

In late October, the new Dean of the Medical School Prof Gervase Chaney unveiled a two-metre long artwork painted by Ruth Smit, Peter Li and James Dodd, who during their week-long Kimberley Remote Area Health Placement in Derby created Healthcare in the Western Desert under the tutelage of eight local Aboriginal artists.

Annin, Robyn, Janette, Rochelle and Lochkiesha Wise (Wangkatjunka); Lorraine Gordon (Warlpiri); and Melissa Sunfly (Kukutja) and Mark and Mary Norval from the Norval Art Gallery were the guiding hands.

The result is a painting that consists of three ‘snake and staff’ images which represent the universal symbol of the medical profession and the three medical students. Also featured are horse-shoe shaped symbols depicting women and children in the community; rainbow-coloured squares to highlight the medical clinics; and a number of circular jila (waterholes).

“It was the most invaluable experience I’ve had on my medical journey so far. It gave me an opportunity to be immersed in Aboriginal culture in a way that I could not have been prepared for,” Ruth Smit said.

For Peter Li, it was an experience of contrasts:

“Confronted with life on a pastoral station, the challenges of providing adequate Indigenous health care in country towns or the contrast between ‘city’ and ‘country’ life, the Kimberley placement gave me an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to remote-area communities in non-medical settings,” he said.

Instigator and long-time advocate of the program Prof Donna Mak bought the painting and donated it to the medical school.

“For me, this painting is more than just a symbol of the strength and beauty of working with Aboriginal and rural communities – it’s a manifestation of the relationships of trust and respect that deepen each year between students and staff of the School of Medicine and the communities whom they serve.”

Kelly Bell picked up a pen rather than a paint brush and wrote a moving poem entitled Belonging on what the Kimberley experience meant to her:

Belonging

It comes quick to some, that sense of time and place

Of purpose, desire and drive

To love a town, a community, a job and a place

Struggle, heartache and contempt they do not know

Nor how hard it is, for those unknowing and unsure

In medicine, a sea of confidence and ego

Yet here, so out of place, in this big city world

Unworthy, ungrateful, too country

Haunted one by one, these feelings manifest

Until they spill over, like ripples upon the Fitzroy

Washing slowly the red dirt, consoling the heart of a young doctor-to-be

The boab, it’s place defined, stands tall, roots strong. Proud.

A reminder, a blessing, a trip of difference

This is my home. This sunburnt country. This desert, this red earth.

Here lies my heart. Here lies my future.

Here, now, lies a student doctor of worth, of purpose, of belief.

This is belonging.

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