Outback odyssey

Renal nurse, Ronnie Edmonds, works with aborigines in central Australia.
Renal nurse, Ronnie Edmonds, works with aborigines in central Australia.

Ronnie Edmonds has a proper Aboriginal "skin" name but she can't remember what it is. But it doesn't matter. To the locals she is also known as Sister, that "whitefella" woman who drives around in a big purple truck providing life-saving dialysis treatment to residents.

And each day Edmonds is saddened by what she sees. Hundreds of Aborigines require renal dialysis treatment in each small community she and her husband Noel visit, some of it due to kidney damage caused by a lack of knowledge about proper treatment of streptococcal infections, but mainly due to the massive growth in the incidence of type-2 diabetes.

The situation is so bad that in some of the Northern Territory indigenous communities they visit, half of all adults are diabetic. Even worse, the couple see many seriously overweight children who are almost certain to also develop diabetes at a very young age.

It's not their fault, Edmonds said during a visit to her home town of New Plymouth this week.

"These people are an ancient race, and have a legacy of thousands of years of perhaps the world's healthiest diet. They've lived on kangaroo, goanna, snakes, berries and other bush tucker for thousands of generations," she said.

"I recently talked to a doctor who examined the last known nomadic tribe of Aborigines when they emerged from the bush in the late 1980s, and he said he'd never encountered such healthy specimens of the human race.

"But now the Aborigines are living in communities where they can buy Western food - pies, chips, Coke, you name it - and physically their bodies are incapable of handling it. So they're developing diabetes at a shocking rate. We come across entire families that have developed diabetes."

And Edmonds doesn't know how, or when, this health crisis will end.

"They don't get a lot of social support. I know that many people in Australia regard the Aborigines as dirty, stinking, lazy bastards.

"But I love them, and what worries me is that as a race they seem lost - they certainly can't go back to their past, and they don't know how to go forward."

But something is being done, and this is why Edmonds and her husband are working in the Outback.

In the 1990s members of some of the small indigenous communities began to voice concern about the increasing numbers of Yanangu - the indigenous people from the remote Western Desert region of central Australia - who were being forced to move to Alice Springs for their renal dialysis treatment.

They worried about the effect of this dislocation from "country" and family, and they worried more about the fact that many who had to move away from home for their dialysis were older members of the community, the very people who should have been there to pass on their traditional knowledge about family, country, stories and ceremonies - all vitally important to the future well-being of the Yanangu.

Much of this concern was centred on the remote township of Kintore. Increasing numbers of the population of about 450, of which more than 90 per cent are Aborigine, were being forced to travel to Alice Springs 530 kilometres away for their dialysis and were unable to return home again.

So locals started to do something about it.

A unique partnership was formed between Yanangu, community health services, and members of the Aboriginal art industry which saw four remarkable collaborative paintings created for auction by Sotheby's in Sydney in 2000.

The auction raised more than $1 million, and the money was used to establish an organisation called Western Desert Nganampa Walytja Palyantjaku Tjutaku, which loosely translates to "making all our families well".

The first action was to start a Return to Country programme which involved getting patients home for overnight visits between their three-times-a-week dialysis treatments. Since then, a remote renal dialysis clinic has been established at Kintore and alternative dialysis facilities and social support provided at a converted house in suburban Alice Springs, which has been named The Purple House.

This is where Ronnie and Noel Edmonds come in. Since 2011 they're been driving The Purple Truck, which is the organisation's latest initiative, designed to get dialysis treatment into the smallest Yanangu communities.

Actually, only the truck's cabin is painted purple. The rest of the vehicle is an artwork on wheels, painted by members of a commercial organisation called the Papunya Tula Artists which annually contributes tens of thousands of dollars from art sales towards the operational costs of the dialysis service on wheels.

Other major financial supporters are Medicines Australia, which represents the country's pharmaceutical industry, and Fresenius Medical Care, which is the world's largest provider of products and services for dialysis treatments.

Edmonds is proud of the fact that her truck is totally privately funded, and she and her husband love the lifestyle which sees them travel hundreds of kilometres from their Kintore base to the remotest Aboriginal communities.

"It's a real eye-opener - these people live a totally different lifestyle to what we've been used to," she said.

"But we love them, and they've come to trust us. That way we've been allowed to go to places that few other 'whitefellas' can go. When we visit their communities, while I'm doing the dialysis, Noel busies himself collecting the patients and taking them home again, delivering meals, and doing a lot of social support work."

The Taranaki couple have also developed a deep respect for Aborigines. "They're an ancient, ancient race, and they often live in the harshest conditions.

"But never call them dumb - because many of the things they know we will never be able to understand.

"And I know who I'd rather be with if I was ever stuck in the Outback."

Taranaki Daily News