Living the dream and making a difference in Cooktown

Thursday, 13 February, 2020

Living the dream and making a difference in Cooktown

When Dr Ebonney van der Meer set her sights on moving to Cooktown, she went with a mission in mind — to make a difference in the community.

The James Cook University (JCU) general practice (GP) registrar was no stranger to the Cape York town, after falling in love with its vibrant lifestyle and training environment while on a medical school placement with JCU.

“I had a fantastic time. I met Dr Coventry the Med Super here, I met Dr Hill and the other local GPs. I was really attracted to the location and the varied and challenging medicine. I felt like I had to come back. So I worked really hard to complete my core clinical training, completed my advanced skill in mental health and here we are.”

Before moving her young family to Cooktown in mid-2017, Dr van der Meer hoped to use her advanced skill to build on and expand the delivery of services in the region.

Fast forward to 2019 and she has done just that.

“We have been able to set up clinics in Hopevale, Wujul Wujul, Laura and Cooktown for GP mental health treatment and commenced local prescribing for patients on the Queensland Opiate Substitute Program.

“Working closely with the other medical, mental health and addictions services in the region, we are seeing tangible increases in the delivery of primary mental health care provided locally, which is great. The service has attracted broad support locally, including from the Northern Queensland PHN who is helping develop the model and make it sustainable long term.”

Dr van der Meer has also focused on educating staff to upskill the wider health team.

“I’m working with the hospital and clinic staff, delivering dedicated education sessions and ‘on the run’ advice so they feel more comfortable with mental health, alcohol and other drug-related presentations, with an additional focus on staff wellbeing and self-care.”

Dr van deer Meer’s achievements have been intermingled with her busy work and family life. But she says the experience is making her the best possible rural generalist she can be.

“On any given shift, we manage a variety of primary care, chronic disease, emergency presentations and everything in between. You never know what is going to walk through the door. You have to be confident in your clinical and consultation skills and work together with your team.

“I think stepping up to that next level of being involved in the community and being that primary care doctor, but also that emergency care doctor, that ward doctor, that mental health doctor, really forces you to use the skills and knowledge you have across all areas of medicine. I think that’s a major benefit of being a generalist in a community like Cooktown.”

She said the support staff and other health professionals she has worked with have made her experience all the richer.

“On an evening shift in the emergency department, there might only be yourself and one or two other nursing staff. You rely on those staff to help you do the things you need to treat the patient. Relationships build quickly. I am constantly in awe of the exceptional skills of our staff and I know they have my back. That kind of support as a team is invaluable.”

Since moving to Cooktown, Dr van deer Meer and her husband have welcomed their second child, bought a house and immersed themselves in the Far North Queensland lifestyle.

“Weekends are the best time for us. We spend that time hiking, camping, going to the beach, playing down at the water park, going fishing, exploring and doing all the things the Cooktown region has to offer. It’s an amazing place with so much natural beauty and a rich cultural history.”

Dr van deer Meer with her family in Cooktown.

Reflecting on her time so far, Dr van deer Meer said there is one moment that made her realise Cooktown was the place for her.

“Whilst looking after a very unwell patient in the early hours of the morning, I was asked by the RFDS retrieval doctor if I’d rather be anywhere else at that moment. I reflected a while and thought, well actually no, I would not want to be anywhere else in the world. This is exactly where I’m meant to be.”

Images courtesy of JCU

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