About ten years ago an old man consulted me as his doctor of second choice. (His own doctor was away; really I was the doctor of no choice.) A compact man, charming, he smiled beneath a tidy military moustache and carried a Veteran’s Gold Card. Eventually he promoted me to doctor of equal choice. In this capacity I doctored him to death.
In due course I received a letter from the son of the deceased, thanking me. Not for his father’s dying but for the doctoring. Eventually the son and I met. A remarkable man: no moustache, same charm, huge human warmth.
The son’s name is Don Palmer. He says he used to work for God – in the Anglican franchise. Eventually he resigned from Holy Orders and created Malpa, the imaginative project born of urgent compassion and imagination that teaches Aboriginal kids how to become ‘Young Doctors’.
His story inspired a chapter in my forthcoming novel, Carrots and Jaffas, the story of a couple of identical twins, violently separated. With Don’s blessing I pinched his idea. My chapter reads as follows:
The old man reached into a ragged old canvas rucksack and produced a small bottle of goanna oil. He opened the bottle, poured two careful drops onto his left palm and rubbed his hands together. He closed the bottle and took from the rucksack a packet of silver sparkles. He opened the sparkles and shook some onto one oiled palm. He extended the hand to the boy: “Shake hands with me Bruce.”
Bemused, the boy shook.
“Look at your hand.”
He looked. His hand was oily and sparkling with tiny silvery particles.
“That’s today’s story, son. That’s the story of how the enemies of human beings get inside us and make us sick. One enemy is the streptococcus that can destroy your heart or your kidneys. Another is a bowel virus.”
The boy looked at his hand, looked at the old man. He didn’t get it.
The old man’s voice went on: “This is the story of human fate, human history really: it’s the story of how bugs get from one person to another. Just like your hand only had to touch my hand for the sparkles to pass to you, that’s how bugs spread from one person to another. It’s the story of how the Adnymathanha get sick, how bugs kill their children.”
Jaffas’ mind raced, stumbled: Carrots – what does a killer have to do with Carrots?
The doctor noticed the child’s anxiety. He said, comfortingly, “Don’t be afraid, Bruce. Kids are safe if we teach them to wash their hands right.”
The boy looked lost.
The Doc rested an old hand on the child’s shoulder. ”Do you know Greta’s little great great niece Ashweena?”
Jaffas shook his head.
“Well, she’s just a little baby. A bowel virus almost killed her. Ashweena nearly died from diarrhoea.”
A frown on the boy’s face.
“Ashweena nearly pooed herself to death.”
The old storyteller man told the boy about the tides of the long struggle to save Ashweena. When the baby shat blood, the boy’s hand flew to his mouth. Otherwise the boy listened without moving. At the end, with the baby suckling, the boy cried inside himself.
“If that virus had killed Ashweena, I think Greta might have died too. Her heart would have broken. Greta’s lost too many.”
The story had nothing to do with his brother Carrots. The boy relaxed. He thought about the doctor who had saved the little girl. The Doc was the person who looked after all of Greta’s people. He made that baby better and he saved Greta.
The boy spoke, shyly. He said, “Gracias Abu.”
That illustration of the concept of contagion is not part of traditional Aboriginal belief about disease. It wasn’t in western thought either, not until Pasteur, Lister and Co. Now it informs both clinical science and the contemporary hysteria that is hand disinfecting. In Aboriginal communities propagation of the concept can prevent babies pooing themselves to death.
Don from Malpa writes:
POWER TO THE PEOPLE
The Dhalayi Doctors – Young Doctors – at Bellbrook near Kempsey were concerned that their classmates were all getting head lice. Parents and carers were shaving their heads and rubbing them with kerosene. Embarrassment all around. The Dhalayi Doctors decided that a mixture of tea tree and olive oil would solve this. The nine year old Doctors made up the mixture and gave it to their school mates to take home with an explanation of what to do. Head lice were eliminated in ten days.
This was the health leadership that the Young Doctor project was designed to foster. The young ambassadors are taught hygiene, nutrition, health literacy and environmental health. They join the thirty nine Umbarkalya Doctors from Utopia in the Northern Territory and the ten Tjitji Doctors from Alice Springs. The young people learn the traditional ways of doing medicine and the western ways from Elders and respected people in their communities.
Currently nearly 85 % of young Aboriginal children have seriously compromised hearing from easily preventable and manageable health problems. It dogs their lives and the recent research revealing that 90% of Aboriginal men in Northern Territory prisons are functionally deaf just makes the need for change more imperative. The Young Doctors program tackles this and other health issues head on by giving communities the power and the resources to claim their deserved health equity.
Thanks to the generosity of our supporters we will run projects in Kempsey, the Illawarra, Broadmeadows, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. By years end there will be 420 more Young Doctors. We receive no government funding but rely on the investment from a range of passionate and generous individuals, charities and business organisations.
The success of the program tells us that Aboriginal people will succeed if their culture is taken seriously and they are supported to create a better future for themselves.
A few days ago a respondent, having read ‘Raft’ (my nonfiction account of medical work in outback Aboriginal communities – Hybrid, 2009), issued this challenge: What good does all the taxpayers’ money do that is spent on Aborigines?
This question is similar to one I ask myself repeatedly: who is it who benefits – the helped or the helpers? I asked my question explicitly in Griffith Review, No.31. (At the Gateway of Hope). The questions won’t go away.
The Malpa model suggests an alternative approach. Don Palmer raises private funds and operates directly with communities through the elders. Government is bypassed; the taxpayer is not a ‘stakeholder’. The elders, the children and the donors become partners at the gateway of hope.
Keen donors can make a tax deductible donation to Malpa at http://www.malpa.org.au/donate/
Keen readers can pre-order a signed copy of Carrots and Jaffas to be launched at the Melbourne Writers Festival in August 2014 by going to the web site of Hybrid Publishers http://www.hybridpublishers.com.au/indigenous/carrots-and-jaffas.html