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Written By

Bianca de Loryn


College of Medicine and Dentistry

Publish Date

15 February 2023

Providing help to those who need it most

JCU Alumni Dr Jacqueline Hawker has a passion for public health and tropical medicine in remote locations. After embarking on several missions for Doctors Without Borders, the Royal Flying Doctor Service in Cairns has become a new home base for Jacqueline and her growing family.

When embarking on a career as a medical doctor, Jacqueline never aimed for a nine-to-five job in a capital city. “I wanted to become a doctor because I wanted to help people that are less fortunate, and I wanted to travel,” Jacqueline says.

After studying medicine in Adelaide and moving to Darwin to work as a public health and general practitioner registrar, Jacqueline got involved with the international humanitarian medical non-governmental organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, also known as ‘Doctors Without Borders’) and travelled around the world on three humanitarian missions.

“My first mission in Sudan was the kala azar project,” Jacqueline says. She explains that kala azar is a potentially deadly disease which is caused by a parasite that attacks internal organs. “The second mission for MSF was in South Sudan, in a United Nations special area, and the last one was in 2016 in Afghanistan where I worked in a large district hospital on a general medicine unit.”

Dr Jacqueline Hawker in Afghanistan
Dr Jacqueline Hawker in South Sudan
Left to right: Dr Jacqueline Hawker in Afghanistan and in South Sudan. (Supplied: Medecins Sans Frontieres / J. Hawker)

Studying a Master of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at JCU

Jacqueline has also worked in Papua New Guinea, where she became interested in learning more about tropical medicine. “JCU is known for their dedication to medicine in rural and remote areas. That was attractive because that's the type of pathway I was going down already,” she says.

JCU’s Master of Public Health and Tropical Medicine was something that many of my colleagues who worked with MSF were doing,” Jacqueline says. “It was seen as the next step to give you a good idea about what it's like working rurally and internationally in tropical medicine.”

During her time as an external student at JCU, Jacqueline was also working full-time. “I just did it slowly. I did one or two subjects every semester, and I would study on the weekends or after hours,” she says. “I don't know how long it took me, but probably around three or four years part-time.”

Studying tropical medicine with like-minded people

Jacqueline’s favourite subjects while doing the Master of Public Health and Tropical Medicine were reproductive health and a subject that discussed acute care. “Acute care was one of my first subjects at JCU. I'd only recently gotten back from working in Papua New Guinea. I felt like I didn't fit in anywhere, and I was finding it hard to settle back into work in Australia.”

But everything changed for Jacqueline when she met her fellow students in Townsville for the first time. “I got to this acute care course, and there's all of these other people who had come from similar backgrounds,” she says.

“And the course, I had no idea that it was run by a fellow who had spent years and years in Papua New Guinea as well! So, I was like, 'oh, this is awesome. This is what I've just come back from doing'.”

This experience has led to lifelong friendships, Jacqueline says. “To this very day, I keep in contact with people from my time at JCU. One of them is one of my really good friends up here in Cairns now. We've lived together in the Northern Territory, and now she's living in Cairns as well.”

"Even when I can't go overseas, I have found a unique job that is just as fulfilling as working in developing nations. And I can look after my family as well."

JCU Alumni Dr Jacqueline Hawker

Dr Jacqueline Hawker RFDS
Dr Jacqueline Hawker Tiwi Islands
Dr Jacqueline Hawker working in remote areas of Australia (Supplied: J. Hawker)

A "flying doctor" in remote Australia

Since 2018, Jacqueline has been working with the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) in Cairns. As a new mother, she wanted to continue doing the work she loved, but also spend quality time with her children. At Jacqueline's home base in Cairns, the RFDS crews provided more than 22,000 patient consultations at GP and Nurse clinics last financial year, and a further 9,200 remote consultation calls were provided through the telehealth service.

“The retrieval teams have a doctor, a nurse, a pilot and an aircraft that's ready to go around the clock for whatever comes up,” Jacqueline says. “That can be anything from a car accident on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere on a station, for example. Or you are going to retrieve a patient who needs to have a hospital admission after they have presented to one of the Cape York clinics.”

The clinic teams, where Jacqueline worked as primary care specialist until early 2022, are organised in a different way than the retrievals. “Our two clinic aircrafts in Cairns have a schedule, and they take us to either day clinics West or South of Cairns or to the overnight clinics in remote locations around Cape York,” Jacqueline says. “We fly up, for example, to Lockhart River on a Tuesday morning. We get dropped off at the community and then we basically do whatever needs to be done at the clinic.”

A busy work week with the Flying Doctors

“We usually have a busy few days there, that is, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Then we fly back on a Thursday afternoon,” Jacqueline says. Friday is an office day for the clinic team. “That’s when we do all of our administrative work so that when we're in Lockhart River we have more time to take care of our patients.” To put this into perspective, RFDS Cairns-based teams fly more than 1.2 million kilometres every year.

“Working in the clinic isn’t really like working in a hospital, it’s a more unique clinic run by nursing staff 24/7, with fly-in fly-out staff to support,” Jacqueline says. “We work closely with everybody else that comes up to Lockhart River, as we are part of the primary health team on the ground, working with Queensland Health nurses. We usually have a doctor and a nurse with us, and a mental health clinician as well.”

Supplied: Royal Flying Doctor Service, Queensland Section

Making a difference with telehealth

More recently, Jacqueline has been concentrating on offering telehealth services from the RFDS Base in Cairns. “Most of our telehealth is over the phone, we don’t really see patients from cattle stations on our screen, as there is often no internet or the internet isn’t strong enough,” Jacqueline says. “We might need to organize for them to have a retrieval, or we might need to give them some antibiotics or facilitate admission to a hospital.”

“The stations have RFDS medical chests, with antibiotics and other emergency medication. The stations need to call us up to get advice and permission to use the medication from these chests.”

As a mother of a growing family, Jacqueline still enjoys travelling and helping people in need, but for now, on a smaller scale. “With the Royal Flying Doctor Service, a large part of my job is working in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. So, even when I can't go overseas, I have found a unique job that is just as fulfilling as working in developing nations. And I can look after my family as well.”

The Cairns RFDS celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2022.

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