Midwife Co-Ordinator / Maternal Health Nurse. Biripi Medical Centre – Purfleet.
Amy Heague recently had the pleasure of speaking to inspiring woman Sharon Donovan-Cochrane, Midwife Co-Ordinator/ Maternal Health Nurse at Biripi Medical Centre, about her passion for working in the local Aboriginal Community here in Taree …
Why is your job so important to the Aboriginal community?
Any Aboriginal person who takes a job/position working with Aboriginal people needs to be committed and responsible to the health and wellbeing of our people. The way we do our job and provide our services helps towards breaking the ongoing cycles in the community. I might not be able to help everyone, but if I could just help 10 girls/women and their babies, then I can make a difference.
Why is it important to have Aboriginal health clinics?
Many Aboriginal people don’t like hospital. For many older Aboriginal people, it was the last port of call when they were sick – so most people who went to hospital died there. This has led to fear passed down the generations.
Also, many Aboriginal people encounter racism and judgmental attitudes in places like hospitals, and many are afraid to take their children there in case welfare steps in and takes their children away. It is important for the people to see a familiar black face and feel safe.
What is one of your most memorable moments in your job?
A few years ago in 2007 I was a student midwife at a traditional birth at Saltwater Beach – a very significant spiritual place for the Biripi people. There is a Birthing Tree there in the women’s area, and a young mother-to-be chose to give birth there. Her Aunties, Elders of the community, prayed for her, and she had some of her cousins with her. The whole experience was just so peaceful. The baby was born ‘in the veil’, which is seen as a sign of good luck and fruitfulness for the child, so that made the whole experience a special blessing. Birthing is such a natural process, and it was a great privilege to be a part of that traditional birth.
What are some of the issues facing the local Aboriginal community?
It is important for people to realise how important the land and living off that land is to Aboriginal people. My husband still hunts and fishes and provides food for his family from the land. My five year old son loves to dive for oysters and hunt with his dad. If they catch more than we need, it gets shared with other family members.
There are now so many restrictions being placed on where and how much we can hunt, and once again we are being dispossessed of our land. Constantly being asked to change and adapt because of regulations can lead to stress and depression in people, which in turn can lead to all sorts of other problems.
It makes me sad. I remember my mum telling me stories of when they used to go out camping, and the women and the girls would look after the camp and keep it tidy and the men and boys would go out hunting – that was a special time for the community and family. That just doesn’t and can’t happen like it used to.
Do you witness certain prejudices, and if so, how can people help address this? Is there any advice you would give?
Don’t tar everyone with the same brush. There are some great white non Aboriginal people out there working hard at understanding the Aboriginal culture, and that’s a start. Don’t assume just because an Aboriginal person walks into your business, you need to be on guard. Assumption is the worst.
It is good to see there is more education in schools about Aboriginal culture, but you tend to find that if kids hear racist attitudes at home, a cultural curriculum isn’t going to change the attitudes that are passed on to the kids. So parents need to be aware of their attitudes. If people can respect that Aboriginal cultural priorities are different, that would go a long way in smoothing the way.
What is your vision for the future?
My goal is to have a birthing unit here for the local Aboriginal girls. I would love to see a return to traditional birthing practices, because I think it is culturally significant. It is just one way that we can bring back the local culture and empower the local people; we need to teach our children about their heritage.
I am really excited about a new program we are about to launch, which will see care provided by our services for mothers and their children from ages 0–8, offering early childhood nursing and early intervention care through until the kids are in school.
This means more health and learning issues can be addressed quickly and will hopefully help change the way our kids experience school and healthcare.
Words of advice to young Aboriginal people?
At school I thought I was hopeless; I used to hide. But once I left school I wanted to improve my life skills, and I was passionate about working with my community. If I can get through a BA to get my degree in Midwifery, anything is possible. The kids need to believe in themselves. We Aboriginal people have a strong will to survive; you’ve just got to find it within yourselves.
I’m passionate about my people, and we need more strong Aboriginal people working within our culture.
Five things about Sharon:
Originally from Sydney, Sharon moved to the Manning, which is the traditional home of her mother’s people, the Biripi nation. Having the love and support of her extended family is very important to her. It is also where she met her husband.
Sharon realised a life long passion when she completed her degree to become a midwife in 2008.
During her first pregnancy, illness led her to ask questions about her own health and the health of others, which in turn saw her in 1992 study to become an RN.
During her time in Sydney, Sharon worked as a clinical nurse, and Aboriginal health worker and an audiometrist with Aboriginal kids in Western Sydney.
In 2001 she moved here and began working as a part of the NSW Maternal Infant Health Strategy, which aimed to improve the health of indigenous mothers during pregnancy, reduce low birth weight babies, improve breast feeding rates and address other health concerns of Aboriginal mothers.