Aboriginal nursing and midwifery cadetships have transformed the lives of indigenous nurses and patients alike.
Midwife Leona McGrath first had an inkling she might like to become a nurse when she was a young girl and saw her sister give birth to her niece.
“I thought how wonderful to do something like that. But it didn’t seem like a reality because I didn’t think I was smart enough.”
Leona left school when she was 14 and had children young; she didn’t think nursing was a realistic option for her to pursue.
“Just one per cent of nurses and midwives are Indigenous, and we are three per cent of the population,” she says.
Outside of seeing her sister give birth, Leona’s experience with the health care system as a young Indigenous girl growing up in Queensland had not been a very positive one.
“Our health is at third world standards. From a historical perspective, we know that Indigenous people have gone in to health facilities and don’t come out.”
“You have a lot of people who don’t trust the health care system for a lot of reasons.”
Despite multiple barriers to a career in nursing, Leona’s life changed when she read about UTS’s bachelor of midwifery program in 2006, and at the same time she heard about a NSW Health program for Aboriginal nursing and midwifery cadetships. Leona applied for and was accepted into both the degree and the cadetship program.
The cadetship, which provides a scholarship and paid hospital placements to Indigenous trainees, “dramatically changed my life,” says Leona. She trained at the Royal Hospital for Women in Randwick, but she now works with the health department as the senior adviser for the Aboriginal Nursing and Midwifery Strategy.
Leona now helps to run the cadetship scheme, which provides students with a study allowance for 40 weeks a year. Cadets are also required to undertake a paid work placement during the ten-week non-teaching period each year.
Since the program commenced in 2004, 132 nursing and midwifery students have graduated in NSW.
“There are now 68 Aboriginal cadets in the program across NSW,” Leona notes. Another 60 students are receiving financial scholarships, she says.
A need for cultural safety
For Leona, the program is not just about giving Indigenous students career paths that otherwise might be closed to them, it’s also about addressing the Indigenous community’s needs for cultural safety.
“Unfortunately the reality is that racism means that health services can be unsafe for a lot of Aboriginal people.”
“I know that my pregnancy would have been a whole lot different if I had another black face. Aboriginal people have that connection with each other.”
Skye Parsons, the project officer for the Aboriginal Nursing and Midwifery Strategy, has worked as a midwife at the RPA in ante- natal health, seeing Aboriginal women and women having Aboriginal babies.
“To see another black face there really puts people at ease,” Skye says.
At RPA she offered a flexible service and appointment time. “Antenatal attendance was much earlier. People were booking in during the first trimester.”
Having a program specifically designed for Aboriginal women had a positive impact on the community, she says: “People were having healthier babies.”
The cadetship program is growing, Skye notes, with 15 nursing and midwifery students enrolled last year.
“Working in a hospital they learn policy and procedure. Cadets are work ready when they graduate,” she notes.
As Leona puts it: “It’s transforming lives.”