From the highlands to the desert

Dr Ann Parker humbly says that receiving an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) last year is ‘a mystery’—yet a quick chat about her work as a doctor in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and volunteering in the Southern Highlands, and the mystery is solved.

Ann embarked on a medical degree straight after leaving Ascham in 1970 and at the age of 23 graduated as a doctor from UNSW, later specialising in General Practice. After working in Sydney, Nigeria, England and rural Queensland, she joined a General Practice in the Southern Highlands. There followed three decades practising in Bowral while living in the historic town of Berrima and raising her family. Ann reflects that she has always been very happy being a GP—work that she says seems more human to her than working in hospitals. It was a natural progression that the Southern Highlands was the place where her desire to help others and first ventures into community-based action work began.

During the 1990s the Southern Highlands’ population began to explode, with an influx of people taking advantage of the new and improved highway south from Sydney. Ann says the existing Berrima community was not entirely receptive to their new neighbours and views were divided as to whether the town should grow and change or remain the same. To help improve community cohesion in Berrima, Ann helped form a group called ‘Berrima Town Life’ in 2002, organising activities such as welcome morning teas for new residents, Carols by Candlelight, renovating the hall to enable community meetings, and arranging regular concerts and social events. These small community-based activities helped to build goodwill amongst the town and integrate its new inhabitants.

The next chapter of Ann’s life began in 2007 when she first visited the Northern Territory to assist medical centres in remote Aboriginal communities, an interest sparked by involvement in ‘The Intervention’ into Aboriginal children’s health and welfare by the Australian Government at the time. Practising in the Northern Territory was a far cry from her Southern Highlands life, with Ann explaining that it was an ‘introduction to this other Australia that I didn’t know about.’ Ann embraced these new experiences, people and landscapes. She discovered that she enjoyed practising in this outback context as part of the Remote Area Health Corps. There followed return annual visits to the Northern Territory to contribute her time and skills, making a small difference by helping others at a grass-roots level.

After 2009 Ann became a Senior Lecturer with the University of Wollongong, teaching medical students in a new course designed to encourage students to work in rural areas after graduation. As part of their four year course, medical students spent a year with a GP in a country town. The students had the benefit of developing their skills under the close personal supervision of a GP, really getting to know their patients, whilst also enjoying country life. She served as Chairman on the Board of the Division of General Practice and volunteered on the Sexual Assault roster in her town for ten years.

Since her retirement from her Bowral practice in 2017, Ann now works part-time in the Northern Territory. She regularly visits Aboriginal-run communities that are located between Katherine and the West Australian border for four to six weeks at a time. Reaching the communities involves flying to Darwin, a second connecting flight and then a six hour drive to the Tanami Desert area. She packs plenty of books to read in down time, her yoga mat and a swimming costume so she can cool down from the extremely hot weather at the nearest water hole which is only 100km away! Back in Berrima she works two days a week doing telehealth to these same clinics.

Many of Ann’s patients have chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes which require detailed medical plans and ongoing treatment. Ann said ‘I love getting to know the people in community, but the work is challenging due to the burden of so much chronic disease, and the cross-cultural challenges involved in health care.’

It takes a courageous soul to step outside their comfort zone, to act on their desire to improve the lives of those less fortunate and try to make a difference. Ann’s life is a reflection of this courage and compassion and her OAM is very well deserved.

Images left to right

Ann’s home in Lajamanu in the Northern Territory, the Road near Ann’s house in Lajamanu in the Northern Territory and a Berrima Townlife gathering 


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