As a student, Lauren Hutchinson couldn’t wait to be free from the small country town she’d grown up in… then she couldn’t wait to get back.
Growing up in a small rural town, in central west NSW, my ambitions as a teenager were pretty straight forward:
- Get as far away as possible and
- Become an optometrist.
The absolute sense of community you experience when working as a health professional in a rural town is amazing
I achieved both, although I did not stay ‘far away’ for very long. As I progressed through my years of study in Brisbane, I increasingly yearned for home. Being a proud Muruwurri woman, growing up on Wiradjuri country, I missed my country, my family and my small town. So upon graduating, much to everyone’s surprise, this little Koori left the big city and headed back to the country.
I never looked back.
As an Indigenous person living in rural NSW, I have always been keenly aware of the service gaps that face rural and remote, as well as Indigenous, communities. My awareness grew as I became actively involved with Indigenous Allied Health Australia (IAHA) and began to connect with other likeminded and extremely passionate Indigenous health practitioners.
Having graduated in optometry I knew community work was where my heart was, and I was extremely lucky to find an employer who shares my passion.
That employer is Fiona (an optical dispenser with 20+ years in the industry under her belt) who owns Eyewear Specs in Forbes, New South Wales. I work as the sole optometrist with Fiona and our trainee dispenser, Brodie.
My early days, working as a new grad and the sole optometrist in a rural town, were extremely daunting. I was lucky, however, to find an amazing mentor in Dr John Pearce, who works just one town over. Knowing I had his support and an experienced ear to bounce things off, was invaluable in building my confidence. I am extremely grateful for all I have learnt and continue to learn from John, who is only ever a phone call or email away.
When we aren’t in the practice we do as much mobile and community work as we can. Through the Visiting Optometrist Scheme we provide Indigenous Clinics to Forbes, Parkes and Peak Hill. I also work with Brien Holden Vision Institute doing eye clinics at the Orange Aboriginal Health Service. Additionally, we regularly visit nursing homes, schools (which involve not only screening but returning for full eye examinations and glasses deliveries) and participate in Public Health initiatives throughout the region whenever possible. All in all, we regularly visit six communities within about a 110km radius. It sounds like a logistical nightmare, I know, and sometimes it can be. What we have though is the support of each other and our beautiful community. I am so unbelievably lucky to live and practise where I do.
Of course, working rurally does have its challenges but the rewards outweigh them tenfold. The absolute sense of community you experience when working as a health professional in a rural town is amazing. Getting to know your patients, their families and seeing them at the supermarket, at the café, or even on the opposing hockey team wearing the glasses you helped them pick, is pretty rewarding. When challenges crop up, you learn to adapt quickly to work with what you have at your disposal. And that means you have to be pretty innovative and resourceful at times.
For any optometrist wanting to practise in a rural setting my advice would be: prepare to get really good at foreign body removal! I absolutely love working rurally and would not change it for the world. I encourage everyone to experience it, it is just so rewarding.
Lauren Hutchinson is a proud Muruwurri woman who practices optometry at Eyewear Specs in Forbes NSW.
Photograph by Sarah Hodge, Essjay Photography.