When I left Aurukun and began working for a nursing agency it was certainly a new chapter in my life. I’d worked for Queensland Health for around 20 years. I enjoyed the certainty and security of permanent work and, while I listened in awe to the stories of agency nurses I’d worked with, I was too afraid to follow them into the wide world of choices and possibilities.
In late 2010 I began work on my first agency contract on Badu island in the Torres Straits off the top of North Queensland. Prior to arriving I knew hardly anything about the islands, but the flight from Cairns to Horn island and then on a smaller plane to Badu whet my curiosity. I had never imagined any kind of life off the tip of Cape York. There had been a time in my adult life were I’d never been further north than Bundaberg, and even that felt like I was about to drive off the edge of Australia.
Flying over the Torres I stared down through a smudged plane window at a blend of ocean blues and greens and tiny uninhabited islands and knew I wanted to stay awhile to get to know this place.
So much has been written and said about new beginnings, basically the fact that the past needs to be let go of to embrace the new. I let go of the need for certainty and security and whole-heartedly embraced a sense of adventure which opened a fascinating chapter of island life and culture.
Oddly, where I finished my last blog in my remote area nurse story, there was a natural pause, or break in events. I went from being permanently employed by Queensland Health to choosing uncertainty as an agency nurse. My first contract was on Badu island in the Torres Straits. I’d experienced life on a tropical island in Samoa and in many ways I found a similar culture on Badu.
I haven’t written anything here for five weeks. I’ve just returned home after spending time in Tasmania, another island, and at the opposite end of Australia to the Torres islands. Another island culture, but with few similarities to the tropical north. They share being surrounded by the sea and having a relaxed feel, but then landscape, weather and history diverge.
Breaks are essential to the narrative of our lives and their meanings many. We take a rest from everyday busyness, we end one thing and begin another, we voluntarily plan them or they’re forced on us. They’re usually a waiting time, a marking time until life resumes where we left off or we begin an entirely new thing. Either way, we’re never quite the same person. I went to Tasmania to witness a friends wedding, for her it was a wonderful beginning to something new, for me it was the experience of a place of beauty I’ve never seen before and to which I want to return. And which has given me another view of island life, new possibilities. I will return to my remote nursing story this week and write about life on tropical islands but my thoughts for now are very much still on the break I just took on a more southerly, cooler and greener island.
My experiences of formal cultural awareness programs is limited to three. The first was a two day compulsory program provided by Queensland Health in the nineties. I worked in a paediatric ward of a base hospital, occasionally I cared for an Aboriginal child but rarely had contact with a child’s carers. Usually older siblings were sent up to the ward to visit and police were asked to find parents when it was time for a child to be discharged. I assumed Aboriginal people weren’t comfortable with hospitals. The two days I spent in a classroom hearing the history of the crimes of the dominant white culture against Aboriginal people didn’t give me any insight at to why I rarely saw the parents of Aboriginal children visiting in the ward. Was it a distrust from years ago?
The second cultural awareness talk was less formal but one I was hoping to learn valuable information from. It was two days after I arrived in Aurukun to work with Aboriginal people in the health clinic. I knew I needed to learn about the local culture. The senior health worker took me to a private corner of the room to give me a cultural awareness talk and said “Sometimes a patient comes into the clinic and they might be poison to a health worker.” I’m sure my mouth dropped open and my eyes widened…I asked “What makes one person poison to another?”…after a meaningful pause and a long sigh…the reply was “it’s always been that way.” And with those few words he stood up to leave, having given me the talk. His words left far more questions in my mind than I had before he spoke to me. It was many months before I had any idea of what he was talking about. The little I learnt about local culture was taught informally by the two female health workers on a need to know basis.
The third experience was a whole day at the Alice Springs hospital last year as part of their orientation program. It was run by a local Aboriginal woman. I learnt about kinship systems, cross-cultural communication, local history and language. It was fascinating and informative but by that time I’d already learnt much of it through my own reading, watching films and listening and paying attention to Indigenous people around me who’d been open enough to talk about their lives.
Education is an interesting thing, it can be both formal or informal and come at the right time to be understood and benefitted from, or a lot of money and time can be wasted on irrelevant information badly timed.
I’m looking through my Aurukun photos for an image to represent the change in my life when I began remote area nursing. But I should go back in time about a year to 2007 when I divorced, sold up and divided my assets with Stephen, and bought a small house in a country Queensland town with our 14 year old daughter.
I took a series of photos, then, of packing boxes and furniture waiting on the timber verandah of our colonial cottage to be transported by a removalist to the modern two bedroom hardiplank house in Tiaro. The photos showed lives in transition. They weren’t taken on a digital camera so I have no way of accessing them while I’m working here in East Arnhem Land, two flights from home.
In the few months of divorcing, moving and setting up home as mother and daughter I worked in a nursing home. My new neighbours were all retired, attending their gardens and driving caravans on long holidays around Australia when the weather was better somewhere else. I wasn’t ready for a change that involved reminders of reducing my life to old age and retirement. I enjoyed creating a home for us, filling it with as much timber, cane and cushions that I could and anything ethnic to add character. I painted out it’s boldly purple walls with soft greens and built a garden to look out at. Once I was satisfied with the result I craved a bigger life, an enlarging change.
Apart from the packing box photos and before and after photos of the new house I don’t have any visual images in my mind or in print of the changes that led up to me running away from home. Words about change appeared in bold in unexpected places. A friend sent me a card with a butterfly on it and the words “Without change there’d be no butterflies”…in the preface of a book by an Australian rehabilitation doctor called ‘Cry of the Damaged Man’ the words “What was has changed, what is will change”. Those words, and others, held my fears at bay long enough to allow my curiosity to explore possibilities.
I put my contact details on the Queensland Health website in the expression of interest in remote and rural nursing section. The Director of Nursing in Aurukun rang me a few days later.
I think a photo of Aurukun from the air will be just right for my change image. Finally after an almost two hour flight from Cairns on a Skytrans plane, over trees, red dirt tracks and meandering watercourses this was the image I saw and it was then that I realized just how far away I was from home and where change and curiosity had brought me.