You have quite the story to tell – how did your journey begin?
I trained as a registered nurse in the 1980s and quickly moved into midwifery. I was hospital-trained, so after working for nearly 10 years as a midwife, I went back to study and did my Bachelor of Nursing and then Master of Public Health. I also moved out of midwifery into broader sexual and reproductive health and HIV. I had always had a keen interest in travel and worked all over Australia and the world, often in low-income areas. That developed my interest in the inequities of health and improving health outcomes for people who had less access to services, and this really led to my work with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). I also developed an interest in health education and research, so in 2001 I took up a university position coordinating a postgrad sexual health program back here in Queensland. Then, before I knew it, I ended up with a PhD!
I was a registered nurse at 20, a midwife by 24, and then did a Bachelor of Nursing just before turning 30, a Master of Public Health just before 40 and then I got my doctorate just before I turned 50.
What made you decide to go to South Sudan and Afghanistan?
My work in both locations was with the International Committee of the Red Cross, where my role was to develop maternal and child health programs, and midwifery and traditional birth attendant training programs. Both were in conflict zones. I learned about the real vulnerability of community and the inequities of health, particularly around women and young children being vulnerable to conflict and war. Out of that, I realised the privilege I had and how my
knowledge could be contributed back to understanding that experience and developing systems to reduce that inequity. I experienced the amazing resilience of those communities
and the power of those communities in that context. Our work was around assisting processes to be sustainable within the uncertainty of conflict. You can do development work, but when you add conflict, natural disaster, or pandemic as we have experienced recently, then it impacts sustainability. It can be frustrating, challenging and rewarding – all at once.
Were the conditions in South Sudan and Afghanistan challenging?
I was in Afghanistan at the height of the Taliban-controlled era in 1998. I had worked in remote settings before so I was used to not having a tertiary centre and not always having great resources. I was prepared for the unexpected, but in hindsight I am not sure I fully understood the challenges I would face. I was privileged to work with some wonderful women in a way that most people couldn’t, because back then it was a closed society.
I was in South Sudan in 2000 – Sudan had been experiencing an ongoing internal war between the north and south for many years. I was in a very small village establishing a primary health care unit and expanding the maternal and child health care component of it. This was a different experience to Afghanistan, as I was working usually with only one other ICRC colleague and nearly a day’s flight away from the ICRC head facility in Lokichogio, Kenya. It was challenging, especially when the conflict escalated, but the local community and healthcare workers provided me with a network of support and to some extent a sense of safety. I think my ICRC experience cemented my understanding of the need and importance of working in partnership with community, a practice I have carried into my research.
In the early 2000s, Sudanese people were one of Australia’s highest new arrival groups under refugee status. My PhD arose because I had been doing some work with Ethnic Communities Council Queensland and there were concerns around the health and wellbeing of some of their young people. My PhD was about trying to allow young people to have a voice and then also talking to parents, elders and guardians.
You also worked in the Northern Territory?
I went to the Northern Territory when I was practising as a midwife and worked mainly in birthing suites and antinatal scenarios in Alice Springs and Arnhem Land. It was a privilege to be welcomed into the community. My philosophy has always been that I don’t go in to help. I go in to learn, to share and listen to the community. It is always a two-way street.
Now that you are settled in Brisbane, what research are you doing?
I am in a research group doing work in sexual health and HIV. We work with communities to develop an understanding of issues they see as a priority. Working in partnership with the community also helps develop research skills, with the knowledge that, if you get good data, it helps build capacity within the service to gather evidence to lobby for policy change and advocacy.
We’ve noticed some real success stories in the innovative models of HIV testing. I’ve been active in working with Rapid Testing, a Queensland Positive People program, looking at how to increase access to testing for HIV and other sexually transmissible infections. We’ve been doing molecular point-of-care testing for chlamydia and gonorrhoea, and HIV self-testing projects, some of which are now embedded in
standard operations and offered as a service.
Do you have a message for students about to embark on their careers?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions and try new things. Where you think you may be heading –you may not end up. I am a case in point. I was a ward nurse at Nambour General and never thought that a number of years later I would be sitting where I am today.