Physiotherapist Ruan Swart flies to work with MAF every week

MAF enables disability physio service for remote Australian islanders

11th November 2022

Physiotherapist Ruan Swart flies to work with MAF every week

Physiotherapist Ruan Swart flies to work with MAF every week (credit: Stephanie Gidney)

Thanks to MAF, Ruan Swart is able to provide physiotherapy every week to some of the remotest people on earth. Ruan chats to MAF’s Stephanie Gidney about his work and how MAF’s daily shuttle service to Australia’s Elcho Island makes a world of difference

Elcho Island – off the coast of Arnhem Land in Australia’s isolated Northern Territory – is difficult to get to without a plane.

By boat and land, it takes many hours to reach the Yolngu Aboriginal people who live there. During the wet season (November to April), overland travel is impossible but with MAF it takes a mere 40 minutes by air all year round.

Aerial view of Elcho Island in Australia’s Northern Territory

Aerial view of Elcho Island in Australia’s Northern Territory (credit: MAF Arnhem Land)

Physiotherapist Ruan Swart travels to the island every week for two days to treat people with a range of disabilities and mental health issues.

MAF’s regular shuttle service from Gove Airport on the mainland, not only makes Ruan’s treatments more accessible to more people, it also costs less for both him and his clients:

‘Many MAF flights are subsidised by donations, which makes them more affordable. If I were to go with a commercial operator each week, it would be much more expensive. As MAF is more affordable and accessible, it means that my clients can afford more treatment to improve their quality of life.’

Ruan Swart, MAF frequent flier and physiotherapist

The Australian government provides national disability insurance to those living with a disability, so as a physiotherapist supporting this community, Ruan’s air fare is paid for by this insurance.

Without MAF, it would take many hours to reach Elcho Island by boat and land

Without MAF, it would take hours to reach Elcho by boat & land (credit: Lukas Schmid)

Ruan relieves a range of conditions

Many of Ruan’s clients have mental health issues caused by addiction:

‘Mental health cases are probably around 60% of my caseload. A lot of my clients have issues with cognitive processing and speech. Others have depression or anxiety and don’t want to leave the house, mostly due to substance abuse. Although physiotherapy doesn’t cure mental health issues, it does boost their ‘happy hormones’.

‘I encourage them to get out of the house. Hopefully with regular exercise, it will improve their mood and help them feel better. Exercise supplements their physiotherapy and medication.’

Ruan works with other health workers to provide holistic and culturally appropriate care:

‘I work with occupational therapists and support workers in town – we work together to provide a culturally appropriate programme, especially for men. We get them out to the beach, collect firewood, make a fire, make food and take them fishing and include some exercise. Together, we try to get them back to where they used to be.

‘The indigenous people are very connected to their land, and they love fishing and making a fire on the beach. Their mental health conditions have prevented them from doing those things, so if we get them out, it helps them feel a lot better and more connected to their culture and land again.’

Ruan also supports people living with Machado-Joseph disease – a unique neurodegenerative condition, which predominantly affects Aboriginal people living in the region:

‘It’s passed down through the generations and is similar to motor neurone disease. Patients will eventually pass away because of respiratory disorders. They get a chest infection, won’t get better and their muscular system gets weaker.’

Ruan’s other clients include stroke survivors, people who have lost their limbs or those with brain or spinal injuries.

God moments

Given their beliefs, the Yolngu people are incredibly spiritual and are open to having conversations about God, which as a Christian, creates interesting opportunities for Ruan:

‘The Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land are inherently spiritual. I’ve had way more opportunities to speak about Christ in my workplace up here than I did back in Perth. It makes more sense to them that there is a God who loves them.

‘In mainstream Australia it can be challenging to bring up conversation about religion, let alone what God has done for us, but here I feel like I can speak the Gospel more than anywhere else. I’ve really enjoyed that part of it and it’s amazing to see that people want to learn more and ask questions.’

With MAF’s support, we wish Ruan every success as he reaches even more marginalised people who would benefit from his service.

MAF plane takes off from Elcho Island to return the next day

MAF plane takes off from Elcho Island to return the next day (credit: Peter Higham)