This week Bonnie O’Shanassy is retiring from her position as Koori Hospital Liaison Officer at Bairnsdale Regional Health Service (BRHS).
Bonnie will long be acknowledged as a pivotal figure in the history of BRHS’ relationship with the local Koori community.
Her almost two decades in the role marked a significant and widespread improvement in how the health service recognised and understood the health and cultural concerns of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people, during which time BRHS became a leader amongst Victoria hospitals in engaging and serving indigenous people.
“As a respected Elder, Bonnie created a bridge between the hospital and the local Koori community,” says BRHS CEO Robyn Hayles. “Her work has brought us into a time where understanding and responding to the needs of Aboriginal patients is everyone’s core business, not just the concern of the Aboriginal Health Unit. She has much to be proud of.”
Bonnie says when she first began as Koori Hospital Liaison Officer in April of 2001, she could see why many Koori people in the area actively avoided going to the hospital.
“In a lot of cases, attitudes toward Aboriginal patients were really disrespectful,” she says. “It was not a friendly or welcoming place for them. There was very little cultural awareness, and the focus seemed to be just on collecting stats on attendance of Aboriginal patients at BRHS, not seeking to actually improve the healthcare experience for Aboriginal people.”
At the urging of Social Worker Bill Newcomen, who was then supervising the Aboriginal Health Unit, Bonnie began her mission to improve the situation at BRHS by seeing how they did it in other places.
Early visits with the Koori Hospital Liaison Officers at the Royal Children’s Hospital and St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, and Echuca Regional Health, were key moments.
So, too, was the day in 2005 that the Aboriginal flag was first flown outside BRHS.
“It was the first time I’d ever seen large numbers of Aboriginal people on the hospital grounds,” Bonnie says. “There were school students being shown through Allied Health, learning about possible career pathways, and a number of local Elders and community members attending the flag-raising and afternoon tea.”
It was around that time that BRHS signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Gippsland & East Gippsland Aboriginal Co-Operative (GEGAC), part of Bonnie’s concerted effort to build stronger relationships with the four local Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations.
Bonnie says the appointment in 2012 of Therese Tierney as Chief Executive Officer was another turning point.
“I had heard Therese talk at a health conference when she was still the CEO at Orbost, talking about the challenges of working with her local Aboriginal organisation, and I remember being blown away by the passion and honesty in her speech,” Bonnie says. “When she started at BRHS, her response and receptiveness to ideas marked a change.”
NAIDOC ceremonies became a regular feature on the BRHS calendar, and local Aboriginal Elders and community members began to visit the hospital more regularly.
Visually, too, the hospital began to reflect the original owners of the land, with Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander flags, artworks and sculptures prominently displayed, and buildings and meeting rooms given names from the local language.
Bonnie says the many trainings, initiatives and projects she has been involved with over the years have all been working toward one goal – to make BRHS a place where Aboriginal people know they will be treated in a way that is culturally appropriate for them.
This, she says, required an evolution of thinking.
“The hospital setting was traditionally only looking at the diagnosis and treatment specified in the admission, rather than considering Aboriginal health from a more holistic perspective,” she says. “If an Aboriginal patient isn’t comfortable or doesn’t understand the process they are going through, often they’ll just do whatever they think will get them out of the hospital as quickly as possible. That’s not going to lead to the best care.”
Bonnie says that when she started at BRHS, the attitude toward Aboriginal cultural awareness was very much “we treat everyone the same.”
That has changed significantly over the years, to the point now where there are patient pathways and resources designed by, and tailored specifically for, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people coming to BRHS.
And most importantly, the idea that the experience of coming to the hospital is inherently different for Indigenous people than it is for non-Indigenous people is now widely accepted at BRHS, and ingrained in the health service’s practice and principles.
Bonnie O’Shanassy’s contribution to that will be a lasting legacy.
“Bonnie guided BRHS into a new era in terms of our relationship with Aboriginal people and Aboriginal organisations in this community,” says Linda Daniel, Director of Community Wellbeing and Partnerships. “Health outcomes for Aboriginal people continue to be significantly worse than for other populations, and we recognise we all need to continue to work toward a solution to that disparity.”
“Bonnie’s dedication to closing that gap by making BRHS do a better job of understanding and responding to Aboriginal people has had a hugely positive impact for our community, while also setting the lead for other health services to follow.”
As BRHS searches for a new Koori Liaison Officer to join the team, the work of the Aboriginal Health Unit will continue, staffed by Aboriginal Access and Support Worker Lynette Bishop, Aboriginal Health Care Coordinator Amanda Blandford, and Koori Hospital Liaison Officer Adrian Morgan.
To contact the Aboriginal Health Unit, call 5150 3364 or email AboriginalHealthUnit@brhs.com.au.