Sydney University occupational therapy student Monalisa Atmawijaya helping Kyogle Public School year 5 student Deacon Farrell.

Final year students from university level physiotherapy and occupational therapy (OT) courses continue to fan out across the Northern Rivers to get hands-on experience with clients both elderly and young.

The benefits flow both ways for students opting for rural placements rather than staying close to the University of Sydney where they are studying.

The placements are coordinated by the University Centre for Rural Health, headquartered in Lismore with campuses in Murwillumbah and Grafton. The UCRH arranges practicum placements for medicine, dentistry, physio and OT students throughout the year in a range of facilities, from hospitals to GP clinics, aged care homes to pre- and primary schools.

The supervised placements are an essential part of the degree work for all aspiring healthcare professionals.

Two-person teams from the physio and OT programs work in residential aged care or with young children in the Tweed, Byron Bay, Ballina, Lismore and Casino.

Recently, four OT students spent four days per week at Kyogle Public School where learning support teacher Leanne McLaughlin said, “Around one-third of our kids need curriculum adjustment for academic and/or social disability.”

As there hasn’t been an occupational therapist in the area for a long time, the OT undergraduates are of immense value to a lower socio-economic school.

“The OTs work with around 20 students individually or in groups,” Ms McLaughlin said. “They assist with various essential needs, including fine and gross motor skills, memory improvement, visual perceptions and social interaction. The response from the kids is always terrific.”

Like many visiting students, the aspiring OTs have never visited the area before, but said they loved their time here and thoroughly enjoy working with the children.

Judging from their smiles, the young clients feel the same.

As year five student Deacon Farrell put it, “It’s helping me and it’s kind of fun as well.”

Down in Casino, students Boris Leung and Maree Lau helped elderly residents of Richmond Lodge, focusing on fine motor skills, coordination, reading and cognition.

Patience and flexibility are just as important as technical knowledge.

“You have to be quite inventive,” Boris said.

“We need to be creative to make things interesting. Everyone has goals, and while some of these might seem slight to an outsider, they’re important to individuals.“

“Each step forward is a milestone, and as rewarding for us as for the residents themselves.”

Profiled recently in GPSpeak (Autumn 2017 issue), doctor’s daughter, qualified pharmacist and aspiring medico Sophie Wagner is now two rotations into her practicum year in a cross-section of North Coast clinical settings.

University of Sydney 3rd year medicine student Sophie Wagner… her second practicum placement of 2017 was in the surgery departments at St Vincent’s Private Hospital and Lismore Base Hospital.
University of Sydney 3rd year medicine student Sophie Wagner… her second practicum placement of 2017 was in the surgery departments at St Vincent’s Private Hospital and Lismore Base Hospital.

Starting with a four-week placement with local physician Dr Stephen Moore - whom she confessed to “admiring very much, he is very inspiring” - Sophie has been undertaking an eight-week surgical placement with the operating teams at St Vincent’s Private Hospital and Lismore Base Hospital.

Rather than just sitting on the sidelines as the surgeons undertake diverse procedures, from gall bladders and hernias through skin cancers to mastectomies, Sophie has been actively involved with providing supervised assistance.

She told us she has gone from “knowing nothing to quite a lot”, and as with her initial placement she holds the skilled clinicians in high esteem.

Future placements this year, coordinated by the University Centre for Rural Health, will take in orthopaedics, geriatrics and general practice, the field that still seems to attract her the most.

“From the beginning I felt that becoming a GP, or a rural generalist, in an area like this [where she went to high school] held the most appeal. Perhaps because my mum is a GP here, and I have been exposed to how she works, but not only that.”

“Meanwhile, there’s still a lot to see and learn in other aspects of medicine, and I’m really enjoying this practicum year. UCRH does a great job in arranging our placements, and ensuring we get all the academic and personal support we need.”

“Even if I hadn’t grown up locally I would feel very positive about the quality of medicine practiced here, and the Northern Rivers lifestyle. I know other med students feel the same, regardless of where they’ve come from.”