"Coffee time?” Kara Page calls from the kitchen to a packed waiting room. Her voice is just loud enough to be heard over an indigenous male singer crooning through the stereo. Someone places two freshly boiled eggs on toast next to her — a dish half the morning crowd is already eating.
Faces are happy and the mood is jovial; it’s not what you’d expect from a group of dialysis patients with end- stage renal failure.
That’s the magic of Western Desert Dialysis, or Purple House as it is affectionately referred to, thanks to the lilac walls of its centres. At Purple House, where Kara is executive assistant to CEO Sarah Brown, healthcare doesn’t stop with the clinical treatment of disease, but encompasses the entire treatment experience.
The culture of Purple House was built from the ground up by Sarah — an inspiring nurse with a penchant for remote work and a heart as big as Uluru.
“I’ve been nursing for over 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like this, and I’ve never met anyone like Sarah Brown.”
These words were spoken by Deb Lillis, Director of Clinical Services at Western Desert Dialysis. She has dedicated 12 years of her life to the service after deciding to work in Alice Springs “for a year”.
The only person with a longer association with the organisation is Ms Brown herself. Fourteen years ago she helped the Pintupi Luritja people set up the first remote kidney dialysis unit in Kintore, about 530km west of Alice Springs. Before then, the only option for desert people with kidney failure was to leave their families and communities — the things most important to them — to have life-extending dialysis in Alice Springs.
Fed-up with seeing their elders disappearing from country for treatment, the Pintupi Luritja people decided to come up with a solution themselves. The group united artistic talents from across the Western Desert to create spectacular collaborative paintings they auctioned off at the Art Gallery of NSW. They raised $1 million to set up their own dialysis centre.
All they had to do next was find the right person to help them.
At this time Sarah Brown was living by the sandy shores of Cape Barren Island, working as “the nurse” for the Bass Strait community. After hearing about the auction she rang a contact from her days previously working in Kintore, to check the group’s progress.
“He said, ‘They’ve advertised for a part-time manager in Alice Springs; 20 hours a week at $20 an hour. You interested?” she said.
The decision was a no- brainer for Ms Brown, who packed her bags and landed in the dusty Red Centre ready to make dialysis in the bush a reality. It proved more difficult than she first thought.
“There was an existing way of delivering dialysis in the Territory, which was run by the government, and suddenly this group from the most remote part of Australia turn up and say ‘we’ve got money and we want to do this ourselves’,” she said.
“You’ve got the way Aboriginal people want community health services to run, with cultural priorities at the top, and then you’ve got the whole world of bureaucracy and health regulations, and you have to try and make the two fit together. It was a big challenge.”
The secret to entwining the two worlds came from a willingness to honour the cultural needs of patients. Each centre and its services are customised to the desires of the community it serves, rather than a “McDonalds dialysis” approach.
After much consultation and hard work, the first Western Desert Dialysis units in Kintore and Alice Springs opened in 2004.
To the surprise of everyone, 14 years later the organisation has grown remarkably, providing dialysis in 11 locations in the NT and WA, with their first South Australian unit in the pipeline. There is also the famous Purple Truck — a portable dialysis centre that visits communities where the organisation is yet to set up shop.
Looking back, Ms Brown said it’s been a hell of a ride.
“There’s this analogy I have about driving along a bitumen road to a community and driving along the bush track,” she said.
“The bitumen road is smooth and quick, I feel like that’s the mainstream health service. The bush track is very bumpy and sandy, and you’re more likely to blow a tyre. We’ve always had to go along the bush track, but it’s a much more interesting way to get there.”
Sarah’s role at Purple House is all-encompassing, from meeting with government officials and developing strategy, through to carrying out the humblest elements of patient care.
“She gives a good massage, and she’s really good at cutting my toenails,” laughed dialysis patient Quentin Walker Jurrah.