Tiwi GP – I can run, but can’t hide

Justin – Wurrumiyanga 5km finish (17’05”)

As the local doctor on a small island, for three years I have struggled to ensure my personal lifestyle choices don’t stray too far from my professional lifestyle advice.

Around here, my conduct doesn’t have to pass any pub test with AHPRA or even Twitter—it has to pass the pub test at the pub.

When I say a small island, the Tiwis are second only to Tasmania in size, but the population is tiny. With just one person per 300 hectares, you can drive for a couple of hours without seeing a lone soul. Most of the lone souls are at the pub, getting less lonely by the hour.

That’s where the small-town problem starts. After a long day in the tropics spent telling a full list of patients not to drink too much, it’s nice to wind down with a cool glass of relaxant.

Hypocrite much? You bet your hypocritical oath I am.

Pubs in the remote NT are a throwback to the good old days when there was more smoke in the air than oxygen. Two thirds of my patients smoke daily, and the other third seems to make a special exception down at their local.

The only upside is that no one further than five feet away can see what their doctor is drinking.

I usually avoid the caliginous atmosphere and instead sip wine at home. Not that this escapes scrutiny – you can’t purchase wine on the island, so have to pick it up during a Tuesday two-hour window when the barge sails into port. Half the town is there to remark on your choice of beverage.

My mate at the barge offered to pack mine in a pharmaceutical box labelled, “Medicinal. To be administered only by a doctor.” One nocte. Maybe two, if pain persists.

What I lack in teetotalism I try to make up for with exercise and sporting activity. If the good folk of Wurrumiyanga witness their physician being physical, it will assure them my lifestyle advice is sincere.

Heartfelt exercise, and not in the anginal sense.

I may not be the fastest runner on the Tiwis, but I am certainly the oldest. Teenage footballers stop mid-speckie to marvel in the grey-haired fella jogging by.

“Mantani” they call out to me. “Old man” here is the exact opposite of an insult. I believe it’s a nod to my accrued wisdom, although it well could be a mark of amazement that I passed the age of 50 without COPD or claudication.

All else being equal, I prefer to exercise out of sight of onlookers. My mouth gasping for air acts as a 4wd snorkel, making all my fun-run photos look like Munch’s “The Scream”.

Regardless, I run right down the middle of the main street, in full view of the town centre. I figure this selfless act of public exertion might inspire a few townsfolk to heed their doctor’s advice.

Plus, that’s the road with the fewest camp-dogs. Once bitten, twice shy, and if there’s a third time I’ll take up indoor yoga.

The term ‘camp dog’ turns out to be a legal pearl, whereby the dog only has an owner up until the moment it bites someone.

A moment so oft repeated that our clinic’s wound-dressing Medicare revenue could almost pay for a dedicated statue of dripping teeth: The Canine’s Canines.

As soon as it behaves badly, the offending camp dog suddenly becomes stateless. Its immediate past owners claim the mutt has recently been living in the next street, gathering ticks and antisocial chewing habits so common downtown.

Despite the dog numbers, our store rarely ever sells a bag of dog food.

Your camp dog style is more scrounging for leftovers; ribs of a Sunday roast, tail of a camp-fired wallaby, calf of the slowest jogger.  

So I’m learning to run faster.

Although I’m not a morning person, running early avoids the heat.

Prior to moving to my island home, I had never before witnessed a sunrise outside an all-night poker game, but it seems humans are capable of both waking and exercising at such an hour.

The pain, the tears, the endorphin surge as I hit the wall—all inevitable consequences of trying to leave my bedroom in the dark without waking my wife.

But once I find my way outside, watching the first sunbeams pierce the Arafura Sea is worth the effort. Splendid!

The concept of moving fast without a footy in your hand is a novelty up here in Rioli country. I didn’t invent jogging—it already existed in rudimentary form before my arrival—but by George, I’ve helped popularise it.

Follow my advice and do as I do. Just don’t take a peek inside those pharmaceutical barge deliveries.

First published in Medical Observer, June 2021. Photo by Jane Astalosh, 19/6/21

About Dr Justin Coleman

Justin is a GP on the remote Tiwi Islands at the top of Australia. He edits a medical journal and two medical textbooks, and is a medical writer and educator. Further details at https://drjustincoleman.com/
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2 Responses to Tiwi GP – I can run, but can’t hide

  1. gurgle7 says:

    I can confirm all the above. If there ever was any doubt I often see Justin the road runner passing by with such determination. A good role model to all … last seen being chased by one of those crazy dogs and dust mist. Good on you Justin.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. James Savage says:

    17:05 for 5km in the >50yo age group is flying! Being chased by dogs in training must be working! (Nice article too).

    Liked by 2 people

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