Kimberley pharmacist delivering medications by helicopter during state’s worst floods nominated for remote health award
As floodwaters engulfed parts of northern WA in January, Mary Baker was working alone at a pharmacy at Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley figuring how to get vital medications to remote Aboriginal communities.
In January, record-breaking weather and subsequent flooding caused severe damage to homes and major roads, cutting off critical supplies to flood-affected communities.
The flood emergency has been labelled as the state’s “worst ever”, and communities are still picking up the pieces.
More than 300 people were evacuated or displaced from their homes and almost a third are still in temporary accommodation.
Among the chaos, hundreds of Aboriginal people required vital medication, and Ms Baker took on what she said was one of the most challenging experiences of her career.
Ms Baker works within the WA Country Health Service as part of the Kimberley Pharmacy Services, founded in 2009 to address issues the industry faced in rural and remote areas, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
She has since been nominated for her work as part of the National Rural and Remote Health Awards, with the winners announced on Monday night.
Ms Baker found herself glued to the phone figuring out where people were, where they were heading, who needed what and how to get it to them.
“I had this very insane … spreadsheet that had everyone who I knew was on medications, and where they could be or where I knew they were most likely to be,” Ms Baker said.
“It was actually quite hard to keep track of where everyone was.”
The senior pharmacist would soon end up jumping on helicopters and coordinating with emergency services to deliver vital supplies to community members.
“We’ve got a very, very vulnerable population here. A lot of chronic disease, a lot of heart disease, kidney disease, type 2 diabetes,” Ms Baker said.
“I just had to have everything ready to go and just hope that they were there.”
Ms Baker said working two previous wet seasons and having new protocols introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic helped her to be somewhat prepared.
“Knowing that you need to stock up a certain amount and knowing to prepare everything ahead of time, that helped a lot,” she said.
“There was a lot of adapting and improvising, but there were a lot of systems in place that I could already use.”
Ms Baker said she was supporting a population of about 3,500 people, with “a decent couple of hundred” who needed regular medication.
She also had to ensure medication reached new people who were becoming sick during the floods and new patients who had had to evacuate into her service area.
A massive coordinated effort
Ms Baker was flying to distant communities, including Moongardie, 140 kilometres east of Fitzroy Crossing, while also getting to nearby communities such as Muludja that had become inaccessible by road.
In Muludja, about 20 kilometres east of Fitzroy Crossing, Katrina Cherel received a call from Ms Baker to assist with getting medication.
Ms Cherel, vice chair of the Muludja Community, set out to speak with all 30 remaining residents in the community and compiled a list of about 15 people who were still in town and required medication.
“Some were staying in [Fitzroy Crossing], they got evacuated and some were at the shire hall,” Ms Cherel said.
“But some were still here in the community that needed to get medication out to communities via helicopter.”
Ms Baker then noted the medications the community members required, packaged them, and hopped on a helicopter to Muludja.
She was met by Ms Cherel’s sister, Carlene Shaw, who took over the job of distributing supplies to the community.
“It was very important because we wouldn’t want anyone missing their medication and then getting ill,” Ms Cherel said.
“I think [Ms Baker] did a great job, especially because we weren’t the only community that needed medication.”
Ms Baker said Ms Cherel and her sister were an amazing support and helped ease the burden of her work.
She said she was also grateful for the support of the local radio station Wangki Radio, which helped to broadcast when and where people could access her services.
It was that care and support of the community, alongside herself and emergency services, that Ms Baker said she would not forget.
“It was devastating watching it happen and seeing how many people had to be evacuated and all that sort of stuff,” Ms Baker said.
“But it was nice to see the way everyone looked after each other and put up their hands to look after each other,” she said.
“All of that was just really amazing to see in action.”