When Clare Austin and David Dimech cofounded Project Physio, a traveling physical therapy business for those in rural and remote areas of Australia, they had two goals in mind—helping those who need it most, and self-determination. "This lifestyle of relocating our home and work lives and exploring new places fits well for us," David says. "We love the freedom of choosing when and where to work and how long we want to stay in one place."
After graduating from the University of Sydney, where they’d met and earned their Masters of Physiotherapy degrees, Clare and David lived in a rental house just south of Sydney on the coast and worked as physical therapists. "We realized we didn’t want to commit to a mortgage or settle down and work in one area as we love to live in different places," Clare says. If they lived in a compact house that was mobile, they reasoned, they’d be able to travel and find work almost anywhere, while eschewing mortgage or rent payments.
For months, the couple searched for a bus or a van they could convert into a home. "We looked for ages," Clare says. "Finally, David found a bus six hours inland which ticked all the boxes for us."
The 21-seater Toyota Coaster, previously a community bus, cost the couple $7,742. "We paid someone to drive it down as we didn’t have an upgraded license at the time," David says. "One morning in October of 2019, the bus appeared in front of our home."
Clare and David spent 12 months and almost $23,000 reimagining the bus as an off-grid tiny home. "It was a tricky time, renovating a bus out on the street with limited shared space to work with, but we made it work," Clare says. "The online community helped a lot, but we pretty much taught ourselves how to do all of the build except for the gas and the plumbing."
The couple outfitted the bus with a laundry chute beneath the bed and a bathroom that includes a shower since they knew they’d be going into work almost daily. "This really shaped the layout," David says. "We wanted our bus to feel like a home."
They crafted a lounge area and a built-in bed as opposed to a pull-out sofa. "We didn’t want to convert a couch every day, so a fixed bed was a must," Clare says. "We wanted it to feel open and light and couldn’t be happier with how it turned out!"
They included hidden storage space throughout to minimize clutter and built a dining table that flips up and rotates in different directions, depending on how they want to use it. The kitchen faucet is flexible, too, as it swivels through the window and also functions as an outdoor showerhead.
According to David, the most difficult part of the build was setting up the solar panels and the off-grid electrical system. "With no electrical and solar experience, we spent hours researching how it all works, what parts we needed, and how to build the system," he says. "We’ll never forget when we turned the lights on for the first time. Even today, it still amazes us when we make a cappuccino using solar." They’re glad they persevered. "When something breaks, we’re able to troubleshoot and fix it on the road," Clare says. "If we hadn’t built the electrical system ourselves, we’d be clueless."
Thankfully, the couple has had to do little troubleshooting when it comes to the bus and their business so far. "Project Physio improves access to healthcare in rural Australia," David says. "A lot of the general public has only been exposed to physiotherapy when they’ve, say, injured their back at work or rolled an ankle playing a sport. We’re trained to treat these musculoskeletal injuries, but we’re also trained to work with neurological and cardiorespiratory conditions and rehabilitation for a range of physical disabilities. The more rural we go, the more we see a need for physiotherapy services. Without Project Physio, patients would have to travel many hours to receive these services—or would just miss out completely."
Currently, both Clare and David practice at various facilities such as aged care clinics, hospitals, and in the general community. Whenever it’s possible, they partner with government-funded initiatives to avoid costs for private patients. They’ve created programs for people with osteoarthritis, Parkinson’s disease, and respiratory issues, among other conditions, and have created pop-up clinics in medical centers that enable people to see them privately. For every private client they see, they donate $1 to the Australian Rural Health Alliance.
The couple have been asked to stay longer at each location where they’ve been stationed, and are currently in the process of creating a sustainable project to encourage other allied healthcare workers to go rural.
So far, Clare and David have been on the road for seven months, beginning in Wollongong and three months spent traveling the country’s east coast. "We used that time to catch up with family and friends we hadn’t seen due to COVID-19 restrictions," Clare says. "After that, we made our way along the coast to South Australia, where we started working. We plan to take our time and do a full lap of the country. We are especially keen on visiting some of the national parks in the Northern Territory and want to explore the North West over the next few months."
The flexibility the couple have created has allowed them to work more than usual while also taking time to recharge. "Burnout in our profession is really common, as you spend the majority of your time working closely with people who’ve physical impairments or disabilities, and it can be mentally exhausting," David says. "By combining work with travel, we can experience different places, which is really refreshing."
Clare and David love lying in bed and looking at the stars or watching rainfall through the skylight. "It’s amazing," Clare says. "And to wake up with sunlight that pours in through the skylight hatch when all the curtains are drawn is pretty special. We can make a cuppa in the kitchen and chill on the deck without leaving our home. It’s hard to explain, but it feels like we’re camping in a five-star hotel."
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