Our Remote Healthcare Heroes
The Australian Women's Weekly|September 2021
The further you live from a big city in Australia, the tougher it is to get the healthcare you need, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The Weekly meets inspiring women bringing healing to the bush.
Rosanne Barrett

Ruth Stewart Australia’s National Rural Health Commissioner

It was the day Professor Ruth Stewart was declared the next President of the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine. An announcement was going out to the media, her peers, and the public that the bush doctor and regional health champion had been elected to lead her professional body. But on that day five years ago Ruth was receiving some life-changing news of her own. Sitting in a hematologist’s clinic in Melbourne, she was told the lump that had re-emerged in her neck was an aggressive lymphoma, requiring immediate treatment.

“This is really bad timing,” she told her specialist. He replied: “I don’t care, you’re starting chemotherapy tomorrow.” This kicked off a medical program that saw Ruth experience the best in regional healthcare, including chemotherapy from her home on remote Thursday Island in the Torres Strait.

Now Australia’s National Rural Health Commissioner, Ruth has lived experience of medicine outside cities as both doctor and patient, from the bush to the tropics. “I already had a passion for rural healthcare,” she tells The Weekly. “I’d always been conscious of the challenges.”

Ruth’s journey started as a “rural kid” growing up in Tatura, near Shepparton in Victoria, in the 1960s. She became a medical student and realized the disconnect between life in the regions and the training future doctors received. A few years later, having met her husband – a fellow doctor, Tony – they set off to Scotland to work and study. There she saw the difficulties young women from the remote Hebrides Islands faced when they had to travel to the big city Glasgow – sometimes for the first time – during the last weeks of their pregnancies. “Watching their distress and being removed from everything that felt safe, I was incensed on their behalf,” she says. “That really set me going.” When the pair moved back to Victoria a year later, now with a one-year-old, they settled into Camperdown, a small farming community. Ruth began work as a country GP, and over the years added three more children and extra obstetrics training. She says being a rural doctor is the best job in the world.

“You don’t just know the woman who comes in; you know her sisters and brothers, husband, other children, parents, and grandparents,” she says. “It makes it much easier to provide holistic care, and care people feel safe with.”

Fast forward to 2016, and Ruth and Tony moved to Thursday Island, where Tony took up an executive role with Queensland Health’s Hospital and Health Services. Ruth was Director of Rural Clinical Training and Support, and Associate Professor of Rural Medicine at James Cook University School of Medicine. Ruth and Tony loved working with the Torres Strait Islander community, riding their bikes hundreds of kilometres, criss-crossing the island. But Ruth was tired, sleeping more and felt sweaty. “But what woman in her fifties isn’t sweaty? In any case, we live in the tropics,” she says, ever practical.

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