Meet hero Aussie bush GP
Bush doctor Molly Shorthouse grew up in Arnhem Land and is committed to bringing modern medicine to the outback
As a highly qualified doctor and mental health expert, Molly Shorthouse is the kind of woman you’d expect to be straight down the line with her own health.
But when she started having contractions announcing the impending arrival of her first child, son Noah, in October 2009, she didn’t follow her own advice and head straight to hospital.
Instead, the bush doctor told her husband she needed to get to the beach, not far from her home in the remote Nhulunbuy region of East Arnhem Land in the NT.
“My husband Aari was worried but followed my wishes,” Molly tells Woman’s Day. “The urge to be near the water was overwhelming.” So Aari took Molly to the beach, where she walked its shore, falling on her hands and knees to breathe through another excruciating contraction when it hit.
“I was focused on getting through the pain when Aari yelled, “Molly, Molly, quick look at this. Look at this!” Molly turned to see a huge hammerhead shark swimming along the shoreline.
Several hours later, as she gave birth to a healthy boy in the local Gove District Hospital where she worked, she remembers everyone in the room experiencing the huge surge of energy she did, a spiritual wave she says has brought her even closer to the Indigenous Yolngu people of the area and their “extraordinary” culture.
“The Yolngu believe my totem is Mana, meaning shark,” Molly says. “I think they are right – my son Noah has always been absolutely obsessed by sharks.”
An awareness and respect for Aboriginal culture was something Molly and her siblings – twin sister Alice and her two younger brothers Daniel and Josh – grew up with as the third generation of her family living on the fringes of the small community of Humpty Doo, about 40km from Darwin.
“We had a wonderful childhood,” she says of her life with “hippie” parents in one of Australia’s first solar communities with six other families living sustainably.sustainably “We’d say bye to Mum in the morning and she wouldn’t expect to see us until dinner. We spent our time exploring the bush and making cubbyhouses. We had wallabies instead of puppies, and a giant python lived happily in our ceiling.”
Molly, 40, never intended to be doctor – her parents were much more likely to visit a naturopath than a GP. But regardless of her roots, she was drawn to medicine and these days is working as a doctor in Tasmania, although there is a special place in her heart for Arnhem Land and the role she played there.
‘Rural remote medicine is one of the toughest specialities’
“Rural remote medicine is probably one of the toughest specialities in medicine,” she explains. “We need to be able to perform emergency medicine on anyone, from a newborn to a 100-year-old. And even more, we need to be able to do it alone, without the backup of surgeons and intensive care up the hallway.”y
After meeting Aari Aari, 44 44, a pilot working in Townsville and Papua New Guinea, Molly followed him to PNG but it wasn’t long before they returned to Australia and Nhulunbuy, some 650km east of Darwin and 1000km from Cairns, the home of the Yolngu people.
“I can’t explain how vital the role of elders are to someone’s overall health, and the importance of being on their land,” Molly says. “I’ve seen young men on the verge of suicide taken to the homelands by elders, coming back strong and healthy again. “Suicide didn’t exist in their cultures prior to colonisation but today it’s the highest in the world. It’s horrifying. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have much higher rates of mental illness, chronic disease and incarceration than other Aussies.
“I learned so much,” she says. “I felt like I was standing on the precipice of a vast unknown, an immensely complex and sophisticated culture, the longest surviving culture on the planet.
“I tell medical students and junior doctors, ‘Don’t come here to help, come here to learn.’ It makes you start from a place of respect, not cultural arrogance that our medical knowledge is somehow superior.”
Molly treats babies, the elderly and everyone in between!
A makeshift outback general medical clinic.