10 May 2023

Physio loving life in the Torres Strait

| Cape York Weekly
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EVERY day is a little bit different for one of Australia’s most northerly physiotherapists.

Betty Mareko is one of two Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service physiotherapists in the Torres Strait, along with Jane Doepel, who is the senior physio at Thursday Island Hospital.

“We see all the usual back, shoulder and knee pains physios deal with on the mainland, but some of the causes are a little different here in the Torres Strait,” said Ms Mareko.

“For instance, a common cause of shoulder pain up here is from spear fishing in our northerly waters, which is quite a regular pastime up here.

“As clinicians working in a very remote area, we see a very wide variety of patients, ranging from the very young to the very old, for a wide variety of conditions.

“On the outer islands in one day we could see a patient with a respiratory condition requiring chest physio, a paediatric patient requiring input for development, a patient with weakness secondary to a neurological condition, as well as the more general musculoskeletal conditions.”

But the most rewarding part of working in the Torres Strait is working with the region’s elderly population.

Originally from Townsville, Ms Mareko is of Torres Strait Islander heritage. She has family links to Iama (Yam) and Masig (Yorke) islands in the Torres Strait, which she says helps her find common ground with her more elderly patients.

“I find especially with the elderly population, that they really engage with me when they realise I am able to communicate with them in the same language they understand,” she said.

“Each elderly patient I think of as my mother and I think carefully on how I would translate information to help improve their health literacy and health outcomes.

“When I achieve this, I feel like I have made a real difference to their lives.”

Ms Mareko says she became interested in physiotherapy during her time at Kirwan State High School in Townsville.

She was a competitive touch footballer and the intensity of the sport meant she was often visiting physiotherapists for treatment for various sporting sprains.

“That’s what got me interested in physiotherapy as a career, so I went on to James Cook University, where I got my degree,” she said.

She has now been working as a physiotherapist on Thursday Island for five years.

And it’s not just Thursday Island. Her patch is wide-ranging.

Ms Mareko also helps deliver fortnightly physiotherapy clinics to the Northern Peninsula Area communities and twice-yearly clinics to every island in the Strait.

For most islands, travel is by chartered or scheduled air service but a couple of islands – Dauan and Ugar (Stephen) islands are only accessible by helicopter.

“Every community is unique and it’s great getting out and about to each one.”

Although now a professional clinician, the physio has not lost her love of sport.

“I still play competitive touch football and will be part of a Torres Strait Islander touch team to go to the All Nations touch football carnival on the Gold Coast in December,” she said.

As well as touch football, Ms Mareko and partner Ryan Shibasaki also are part of a local boxing club for young people.

The club, Zenadth Kes Boxing, trains young boxers and takes them to competitions down south.

“Helping people every day and being very much a part of the community is just so amazing. I feel very privileged every day.”

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