Culturally safe birthing for Cape

  • Weipa, far north Queensland, Australia. Sunset over the Gulf of Carpentaria, near the Nanum suburb, Weipa township, Queensland. [Image by Q8682 CC BY-SA 4.0]  Inset: Dr Riley Savage, rural generalist obstetrician, Weipa.
    Sunset over the Gulf of Carpentaria, near the Nanum suburb, Weipa township, Queensland. Inset: Dr Riley Savage.
  • Riley with her husband, Ben Forbes, and their daughters, Molly and Bonnie. [Image: Mukul Modgil Photography]
    Riley with her husband, Ben Forbes, and their daughters, Molly and Bonnie. [Image: Mukul Modgil Photography]

[Sunset image: Q8682  CC BY-SA 4.0]

Women in western Cape York’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities will be able to give birth closer to home, thanks to a birthing project led by Weipa rural generalist obstetrician Dr Riley Savage.

The Weipa Birthing Unit is set to open soon, with the completion of capital works due in September 2022. The unit’s central feature is the Palm Cockatoo Midwifery Group Practice.

‘I’m so incredibly proud of the service we have produced – a women-centred midwifery group practice model of care, focusing on collaboration, community engagement and cultural safety,’ Dr Savage says.

‘Bringing birthing services to Weipa is such important work. It is delivering maternity services to families who would otherwise have to leave their hometown for six weeks or more in order to have their babies, at great financial and psychological cost.’

The 2009 James Cook University (JCU) graduate, who has an advanced skill in obstetrics and gynaecology, was inspired to become a rural generalist while on fifth-year placement on Thursday Island.

‘I was starstruck by the rural generalists there, who were masters of so many disciplines, from critical care in the emergency department to primary care in beautiful island communities,’ Dr Savage says.

‘On top of that, each had advanced skills in areas such as surgery, anaesthetics or obstetrics. I could see how they loved and valued their community and, beautifully, how the community loved and valued them in return. That was my light-bulb moment and, from then on, I focused on achieving my goal of becoming a rural generalist with advanced skills in obstetrics and gynaecology.’

She says her friend and mentor, the late JCU lecturer Maggie Grant-Wronski, helped fuel her passion for the rights of women and, in particular, marginalised women.

‘I learned early on in medical school that, almost universally, healthy women mean healthy communities,’ she says. ‘From discussing and managing pregnancy options, to antenatal and intrapartum care, breastfeeding support, to menopause and incontinence, and everything in between, there is so much scope to improve the lives of women and girls as a rural generalist with advanced skills in obstetrics and gynaecology.’

These days, Dr Riley is in turn inspiring a new generation of JCU GP registrars and medical students.

‘We usually have at least four JCU students at Weipa Hospital at any given time. So I speak from experience when I say that JCU medical students are, more often than not, exceptional,’ she says.

‘They often have maturity and situational awareness beyond their years, and the sixth-years are usually at the level of a fully functioning intern or beyond.

‘We consider the medical students an integral part of the team and guide them to extend themselves in clinical settings. I love teaching them about rural and remote medicine, and I hope to inspire some of them to choose the rural generalist pathway.

‘We also have several JCU GP registrars, who are inspirational in their commitment to rural medicine. Most of them have advanced skills in obstetrics, anaesthetics or internal medicine, and continually amaze me with their level of skill. It’s incredibly rewarding being part of their supervising team, and I’m sure they teach me as much as I teach them.’

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