Celebrating 40 years of Aboriginal health care

Auntie Helen Morgan with her son Adrian.

Growing up in East Gippsland, Bidwell woman Auntie Helen Morgan learned a thing or two about the power of community.

In 1982, that experience made her the perfect person to pioneer specialist health care for Aboriginal people at the Bairnsdale Hospital (as the Bairnsdale Regional Health Service was known before 1988) as its first Aboriginal Liaison Officer – a service that’s even stronger today.

“I was kind of a jack of all trades. I worked in the hospital and out to Cann River and Bruthen and everywhere,” Auntie Helen said.

“I followed up on medical stuff with the staff at the hospital and I worked with people who didn’t like hospital and sometimes used to sneak out. I’d find them and try to bring them back.”

HEALTH NEEDS RECOGNISED

Auntie Helen said she was working at the hospital as a cleaner when hospital management recognised the need to better connect Aboriginal people to healthcare.

“I think Aboriginal people felt uncomfortable going to hospital, and sometimes they wouldn’t go at all. I put it down to staff at the hospital not understanding the Aboriginal way of life and Aboriginal people feeling uncomfortable,” she said.

Auntie Helen said the job kept her happy and fulfilled for the following 18 years.

“I got around and mixed with people. I knew the days when I was going over to their houses, the tables would be all set and there’d be lovely cake and cuppas because Auntie Helen was coming today,” she smiled. “I used to sit down and have a yarn and see how they were going.”  

Sometimes, her advocacy extended beyond the hospital.

“I had to chase up a family that was having problems with the pipes around their house. The Housing Commission wouldn’t fix them so I rang the health inspector and we got it fixed in a jiffy. That’s health, too, when you can fix things that shouldn’t be there,” she said.

BRHS achieved substantial change in her time, Auntie Helen said.

“There were a lot of changes. The staff were friendlier. Some of them needed a bit of education about how to speak to the shy Kooris, and I was able to keep them (Aboriginal people) in hospital and get them well again.”

Auntie Helen, along with other past Aboriginal Liaison Officers Bonnie O’Shanassy and Amanda Blandford are among women from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community recognised in a hall of fame at BRHS’ Day Street campus.

EXPANDED ROLE TODAY

The Aboriginal Health Unit, for many years a one-person operation, now has five people. It comprises:

  • Team Manager Ash Munro
  • Koori Hospital Liaison Officers Narelle Bragg and Adrian Morgan (Auntie Helen’s son)
  • Access and Support Officer Fleur Hawke, and
  • Aboriginal Care Co-Ordinator Carolyn Alkemade.

Ash Munro said she’s proud to uphold the tradition established by Auntie Helen.

“We started with one person, and now we have five and we’re growing,” said Ash, a Gunaikurnai and Djangadi woman.

“When I first started, I felt like there were big shoes to fill, but I think about Auntie Helen’s time in the job as a platform that we’re able to leap off.”

Ash said the Aboriginal Health Unit provides guidance and support for Aboriginal people from admission to discharge and in the community with strategies that assist in maintaining the health, independence and wellbeing.

We also assist with access to the National Disability Insurance Scheme and My Aged Care.

“We cover the whole hospital because our clients are everywhere. We work closely with ward and general staff to ensure the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community gets services that are appropriate and that it’s a seamless journey,” Ash said.

“We support for the community and staff that might not have worked with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people because there are unique things in our culture. We boost the confidence for our staff to work with those clients.”

BRHS now also boasts the Warrawee Room, a safe space for Aboriginal families, and a Yarning Garden created with support from local indigenous people and groups as an oasis amid the buzz of BHRS life.

THE FUTURE

Ash said the unit is pursuing innovations including:

  • developing a new cultural safety plan
  • creating a maternity pack with necessities for new indigenous parents and links to post-partum care and support
  • a proposed culturally appropriate birthing suite in the Rotamah Ward
  • an indigenous wing for the Maddocks Garden aged care facility in collaboration with Aboriginal Community-Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs), and
  • new Aboriginal art installations at BRHS.

The Aboriginal Health Unit is a vital BRHS service, Ash said.

“If it didn’t exist, I don’t think the community would be as keen to access BRHS. We are a friendly face,” she said.

“Within the community, there are a lot of chronic and general health issues. If we can help them when they get here. If we can help the ACCHOs and access the community earlier, maybe we can support them in a preventative service.”

The Aboriginal Health Unit team: (from left) Adrian, Narelle, Carolyn, Ash and Fleur.

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