Over the last week, I’ve been working on a new project that involved making a list of all the dialysis units in Australia (more on that soon). In the process, I discovered that all units are either public (free via Medicare) or private (fee charging), except one, which is owned and run by dialysis patients and their families.
Run by patients and families? What the…?
Of course, I had to know more, so I contacted them and discovered firstly that they’ve been around a while and I’m a bit late to this party. But that made finding them even more heartwarming and inspiring.
This community run dialysis service follows a very different model. It is focussed not just on dialysis, but also on the community, on keeping people together. Imagine a place where family and community, culture and country are integral to a happy and fulfilling life. Where people live in small communities, huge distances from large population centres.
Imagine also, that many of these people can, for various reasons, be more than twice as susceptible to kidney failure as the rest of us. And, because their communities are too small to justify individual, government-funded clinics, the only option they have is to leave their community and move to a city where they can dialyse. That is, move permanently from their lifetime home.
Most are elders or elderly. Their separation hits them hard: they become lonely and isolated and begin to lose the joy of life. Their families and communities miss them; miss their wisdom, guidance, and love. People began to worry about the future of their communities without elders there to provide leadership and pass on cultural knowledge; there was a very real risk of disintegration.
So they drew deep from their community, art, and culture, and changed the game. I’ll let them take up the story:
Determined that renal failure should not be a one-way ticket … away from family, country and everything important, senior men and women created four collaborative paintings.
Kintore Women’s Painting
Kintore Men’s painting
With the help and support of Papunya Tula Artists (their artist’s community), Sotheby’s Australia and local NT politicians, these were auctioned at the Art Gallery of NSW on the 11th of November 2000, raising over $1 million dollars to set up a dialysis service at Kintore (the first of the tiny remote communities in the Western Desert of the Northern Territory).
Patient Patrick Tjungurrayi receiving dialysis in Kiwirrkurra with his grandchildren.
Since the commencement of dialysis treatment in Kintore in 2004 we have grown to have dialysis units in 8 remote communities, as well as at the Purple House in Alice Springs.
Then, in 2011, we created the Purple Truck, our mobile dialysis unit, to give patients the opportunity to spend time in their home communities where there is not a permanent dialysis unit, where they can to reconnect and recharge.
Patient Janie Miama receiving dialysis in Docker River
In 2003, they incorporated as Western Desert Nganampa Walytja Palyantjaku Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation (Western Desert Dialysis). The name means ‘Making all our families well’ and it recognises that people must be able to stay on country, to look after and be looked after by their families.
Western Desert Dialysis CEO Sarah Brown with her award
And success breeds success. As they have grown, they’ve attracted other talented people, like their Chief Executive, nurse Sarah Brown, who was voted Australia’s top nurse for 2017.
And organisations like Medicines Australia, Papunya Tula Artists and Fresenius Medical Care, whose generosity and support helped start and run the Purple Truck.
There’s more. In November 2016, Western Desert Dialysis won the 2016 Reconciliation Australia/BHP Billiton Sustainable Communities Indigenous Governance Awards, Category A Award for incorporated organisations. Professor Mick Dodson, said: “It’s their humanity that stands out in their governance. They’re a family that really cares for every member in the way they deliver services. Aboriginal culture has been wrapped around access to modern medicine and allows it to be administered in a holistic and culturally appropriate way. They’ve … got the administrative nuts and bolts of good governance and are taking innovative approaches to community leadership.”
Take a bow, Western Dialysis Directors.
Still more: Over the last couple of years, they have developed some great education resources for dialysis patients, including this video (in 3 local languages as well as English). It’s excellent. Simple, easy to understand and educational for anyone on dialysis. Check it out!
How great is all this? So many good messages. Beginning with the amazing power of art to influence and change lives.
And smart, inspired people taking responsibility for their own health and well-being to deliver dialysis the way they most need it.
Sounds like yet another example of the ePatient movement, not just sitting back and hoping.
There is a lot more to their story: Check out their beautiful website (showing some of the fabulous artwork) and subscribe to their mailing list. I have a feeling there’s a lot more excitement to come.