Carmel dedicated her working life to caring for rural communities

Dr Carmel Walker receives her RDAQ Meritorious Service Award from RDAQ president Konrad Kangru.

Ipswich-born doctor Carmel Walker (nee Coogan) dedicated her working life to caring for people in regional and rural communities, but none left quite as lasting an impact on her as Bamaga.

Bamaga is about 40km from the northern tip of Cape York in north Queensland and has a population of less than 800 people.

It is part of the Northern Peninsula Area which includes five communities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and was home for Dr Walker for six and a half years.

In that time, Dr Walker went from being an outsider to being so accepted that when she left three different indigenous communities danced at her farewell.

“Bamaga is an Islander community and when the CEO of the hospital organised my farewell, cultural traditions dictate that you can’t ask the communities to dance, they have to volunteer,” she said.

“To have three groups want to dance at my farewell was very special. It really cemented the fact that I had been accepted and the work I had done was valued.”

Dr Walker said one of the most powerful examples of the depth of community among the people of Bamaga came when a baby girl needed treatment.

Dr Walker treated the baby late into the night before a medical team arrived by plane from Townsville to provide specialist care.

It was 2am when she stepped outside to go home only to find a large contingent of community members waiting on the verandah in support of the sick baby.

“I could hardly believe what I was seeing. They really did rally around each other when one of their own was sick in a way I just hadn’t seen in other communities,” Dr Walker said.

Community was a constant theme in the career of Dr Walker, who retired last year and was recently awarded a Rural Doctors Association of Queensland (RDAQ) Meritorious Service Award for her work providing medical services to rural communities.

Dr Walker started her medical career at Ipswich Hospital as a nurse but felt she had more to give so decided to become a doctor.

She finished university in 1976 and completed a year at Cairns Hospital – the closest she ever came to working in a metro centre – before following her police officer husband, Vince, to Mareeba in far north Queensland.

Stints at Mt Isa, Cooroy, Bamaga, Ayre, Longreach and Barcaldine followed.

“I followed my husband around for many years and then he had to follow me around for a bit, and I quite enjoyed the country,” she said.

Life in rural Queensland was not without its challenges as Dr Walker and her husband juggled challenging careers and long hours while raising five children.

“It’s funny but one of the main challenges (of living in rural Queensland) was finding a babysitter, at times it was very difficult to get sitters,” she said.

“The hours you keep can be ridiculous, just trying to get them off to school was a challenge and at one stage I had a receptionist who used to pick up one of the children from preschool.

“My husband also helped a lot and it was often up to him to take the kids to sport on the weekends because I would be working.”

Dr Walker now calls Longreach home, but maintains strong connections to Ipswich through family who still call the city home and fond memories of her schooling years and nursing at Ipswich Hospital.

“Vince and I actually met in Ipswich, he was a police officer and we met on a blind date at the Ipswich Police Ball in 1971,” she said.

“The police station was across the road from the hospital and one of the nurses was going out with a police officer who said he had a friend who wanted someone to go to the ball with him, so I went.

“We hit it off and got married 12 months later, the day after the next police ball. We thought we had better go to the police ball as an anniversary, so got married a day later.”

Dr Walker went to St Mary’s School and attends an annual reunion of past students when possible.

“So we still keep in touch and still talk about school and what we did and didn’t do,” she said.

“Ipswich is important to me and it is still in my life.”

Dr Walker said despite feeling unworthy of the RDAQ accolade bestowed upon her, it was “most unexpected” and she felt “extremely honoured”.

“I’m not quite sure I earned it because I hear stories of some of the things other doctors have done, but I’ve just worked for a long time in country communities,” she said.

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