On the road to Gundagai – or 30 minutes past it – is the tiny village of Nangus, population 205. It’s where Peta and Ricky, who appear in season three of Struggle Street on SBS, live with their five-year-old twins, Bree and Cody.
Nangus is one of those ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ towns that are so common in regional Australia, comprising little more than a post office, a general store, a church, a fire station, a servo and some sports fields.
The local primary school, where Bree and Cody are in kindergarten, has just 24 students and three teachers. The transition to school for any child is a big one, but for Cody, who has a chronic kidney disorder known as Dent disease, it was bigger than most.
Cody’s condition means he has battled ill-health since he was born, when he ended up in special care for two weeks suffering sepsis. It has also affected his development. When he was a baby, his parents weren’t sure if he would ever walk or talk.
However, the plucky five-year-old has surprised everyone by taking school in his stride. “He’s doing really well,” says his mum. “Socially, he’s learning a lot. He’s a lot more confident around people.”
Fortunately for Cody and his family, the school principal is a learning support officer with extensive experience working with children with special needs. The school also has a teacher’s aid to assist in Cody’s class.
It helps that the school is so small. With just a couple of dozen kids, it’s much easier to stay on top of everyday schoolyard illnesses that could land Cody in hospital. “If he was going to go to a mainstream school with hundreds of kids, I wouldn’t have sent him – I would have held him back. He wouldn’t have coped,” says Peta.
Today, Cody is an energetic little boy, but one who has had more than his fair share of doctors’ appointments and hospital stays. Every three months, Peta takes Cody to Sydney or Canberra to see his neurologist, endocrinologist, immunologist, nephrologist, or ENT specialist.
He has monthly appointments with his GP and a paediatrician in Wagga Wagga, a 50-minute journey by car. It’s a trip Peta makes every day when Cody is admitted to hospital, as he was when he recently developed secondary pneumonia after coming down with Influenza A. “We do a lot of driving,” Peta observes wryly.
Juggling Cody’s doctors’ appointments and hospital admissions with Bree’s schooling can be incredibly difficult at times. “I try not to let Bree have too much time off, but sometimes it’s unavoidable, especially when we have Sydney appointments,” says Peta.
Closer to home, the staff at Wagga Wagga Base Hospital try to be as accommodating as possible for Peta and Cody. “If I can’t find anyone to have Bree, they’ll normally cannulate Cody and push his antibiotics through him, and if he’s well enough, they’ll let me bring Cody home for the night. They’ll leave the cannula in, and I have to go back and have him back on the ward by eight o’clock the next morning and set him back up on the drip,” she says. “It can get quite tricky.”
"We don’t have any paediatric specialists; we have paediatricians, but even they are few and far between. The wait time to get into your paediatrician is months and months.”
Health services in the country are often under-resourced, difficult to access, and have long waiting times. “We have so many country hospitals closing down or getting downgraded. We don’t have the necessary medical equipment like CTs and MRIs,” says Peta. “We really lack paediatric services in the country…We don’t have any paediatric specialists; we have paediatricians, but even they are few and far between. The wait time to get into your paediatrician is months and months.”
Managing Cody’s health isn’t just a logistical challenge – it’s a financial struggle as well. The specialists who fly in from Sydney offer private appointments that cost “hundreds and hundreds of dollars,” says Peta. “I don’t know any bulk billing specialists in Wagga.” The cost of Cody’s healthcare means that Ricky, who works in freight and construction, has to take on extra shifts to keep the family afloat.
Despite the challenges that come with caring for a chronically ill child in a regional area, Peta loves raising her children in the country. “It’s a completely different lifestyle to the city,” she says. “You can send the kids outside to play, and you know they’re going to come back covered in dirt with mud up to their elbows.”
She also values the strong sense of community that comes with living in a tiny town. “It’s such a small place; you know everybody.”
Still, without extended family living nearby, life in the country can be tough. “The best support I have here in Nangus is the school,” says Peta. “They’re very supportive of Cody.” Another vital lifeline is Country Hope, a charity based in Wagga Wagga that provides support to sick children and their families living in the Riverina. “I’d be lost without them,” says Peta.
Ultimately, it’s her children that help Peta through the hardest times. “Cody is such a tough, strong, resilient kid,” she says. “Bree is so compassionate. She’s so caring – when she grows up, she wants to be a doctor…Cody is the one who’s going everything physically, but emotionally and mentally, Bree’s going through to it too.
“I love them so much.”
Season 3 of Struggle Street airs on Wednesdays at 8.30pm on SBS. The four-part documentary series continues weekly on Wednesdays. Episodes will stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast.
Catch up on episode one: