Inverloch resident Cath Walker was formally recognised with a National Emergency Services Award for her extraordinary efforts in providing mental health and trauma support to the residents of Mallacoota in the immediate aftermath of the 2019 bushfires.

The award was presented by Federal Member for Gippsland Darren Chester on June 16 at the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) Victoria Sale Office.

RFDS Victoria chief executive officer Scott Chapman opened the event with a speech, with Mr Chester, and Federal Member for Monash Russell Broadbent also speaking.

All acknowledged Ms Walker’s achievements, who closed the event with her own chance to say thanks.

“It might be the nurse, it might be your neighbour. It’s people who have compassion,” Ms Walker said.

The National Emergency Medal was established in 2011 within the Australian Honours System for the unique contribution and commitment of those who have provided sustained or significant service in response to declared nationally-significant emergencies.

Working for RFDS Victoria at the time, Ms Walker offered her skills and experience as a registered psychologist with qualifications in Disaster Support, Mental Health First Aid and Treating PTSD to provide evidence-based care to residents in Mallacoota immediately after the fire impact.

She was then instrumental in the establishment of the Bushfire Recovery program which has been delivered by RFDS Victoria and Relationships Australia Victoria, with PHN funding, and has proven to be invaluable for residents across the Gippsland region as they work through the lasting issues of the 2019/20 bushfires.

Mr Chapman said that while Ms Walker is being acknowledged for her efforts during the bushfires, she has been a contributing member of the community for many years.

“Cath’s willingness to roll up her sleeves and be there for those in need is the value on which the Flying Doctor was born,” Mr Chapman said.

“We pride ourselves on our agility of care, and compassion in how we deliver it – but Cath’s efforts at this time exceeded what anyone could have expected.”

Mr Chester thanked Ms Walker for her support to the Mallacoota community in the aftermath of the Black Summer fires.

“The trauma impacted East Gippslanders and the immediate support, as well as the establishment of ongoing programs, helped locals to work through their trauma and recovery,” Mr Chester said.

“This medal is recognition of her dedication and also the lasting impact her actions have left on Mallacoota. Thank you Cath for providing some hope in such a dark time.”

Mr Broadbent paid tribute to Ms Walker by describing his experiences after the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires.

“I became shire president and I chaired the recovery program. And I remember two meetings where I was dealing with 20 people who were severely damaged. And there were leaders of hundreds of people who were severely damaged. There was no-one like Cath Walker around to support those people,” Mr Broadbent said.

“Some of those people suffered so badly they died. They died of broken hearts or they died of broken mental capacity.

“I know the damage that fire can do. I don’t know how to fix broken people. You (Cath) fix broken people.

“Cath, congratulations to you and all the best.”

Ms Walker told the Gippsland Times she was brought into Mallacoota during the Black Summer fires after a number of people had already been evacuated from the area.

“Safety comes first. Research shows it’s better for people to have a sense of security to start with. Then the psychological treatment for helping with the symptoms of trauma that arrive weeks or months down the track. People in Mallacoota are recovering, but it’s a long process,” Ms Walker said.

“I met a lot of people there who helped others out and I also met some people who were in great distress. It was a very difficult and busy time, but I have worked for over 40 years as a health worker. First as a nurse, and then as a psychologist. So a lot of things I saw I had to do my own coping and brush it off at the end of the day.”

Federal Member for Gippsland Darren Chester, psychologist Cath Walker, RFDS Victoria chief executive officer Scott Chapman and Federal Member for Monash Russell Broadbent. Photos: Stefan Bradley